By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
ASMARA, ERITREA (BosNewsLife) -- An influential independent Christian rights group confirmed late Wednesday, February 27, that Eritrea has released dozens of evangelical Christians, but warned that some 2,000 other believers remain imprisoned in the African nation "due to their faith in Christ."
US-based International Christian Concern (ICC), with Website www.persecution.org, told BosNewsLife that Eritrean officials released 35 men, women and children belonging to the underground Faith Missions Church on February 16, shortly after it reported on their plight earlier this month. They are believed to be the same group of people BosNewsLife cited in a February 14 report. In that report the Faith Missions Church was described as the Faith of Christ Church.
Eritrean officials also released at least 10 Christians who were imprisoned in the port city of Assab for nearly six years, ICC and other sources have said. The Christians belong to Mulu Wongel, Kale Hiwot and Rema evangelical churches, ICC added. However an unspecified number of Christians from Faith Mission Church, who were also recently imprisoned in the city of Agordat, remain behind bars, the group stressed.
Faith Missions is a small Evangelical denomination in Eritrea. It has been in existence in the country since the early 1950s. Besides engaging in evangelistic activities, the church formerly ran orphanages and schools throughout the country. Eritrean officials closed the church in May 2002, "forcing it to go underground," ICC confirmed. "Recently, the government of Eritrea has targeted adherents of this denomination with particular severity."
ICC’s Regional Manager for Africa Darara Gubo suggested that the release of dozens of Christians was just a first step. "Now Eritrean officials should also release the 2,000 other Christians who are still in prison for their faith. In addition, the international community should step up its pressure on Eritrea so that the government ensures freedom of religion in the country.”
ICC said it had urged its supporters to continue to pray for the imprisoned believers and to "call the Eritrean Embassy" in their country. Many of the Christians are held in containers or notorious prison camps, where also independent journalists are held, apparently with little access to water and adequate food or medicines. "The prisoners are kept day and night under the light of an electric bulb and in complete isolation. Some are manacled by the feet or hands. Others are not. When they are not shut up in their cells, prisoners are taken to one of the three interrogation rooms," said the respected advoacy group Reporters Without Borders group about one of such camps, 'Eiraeiro', northeast of the capital Asmara.
Independent journalist Seyoum Tsehaye, the most recent winner of the Reporters Without Borders - Fondation de France press freedom prize, is among several writers and other independent reporters held there and in other cells, Reporters Without Borders said. Several Christians have died, apparently because of torture, BosNewsLife learned.
In September last year, Nigsti Haile, 33, died at the Weaa Military Training Centre "as a result of torture for refusing to sign a letter recanting her faith," said Open Doors, an international Christian rights group with close knowledge about her situation. Haile was among a group of 10 single Christian women who had reportedly been arrested at a church gathering in Keren, the third largest city in Eritrea north west of the capital Asmara.
The Christian women, who had all been arrested 18 months earlier, were separated from other prisoners and taken to Weaa Military Training Centre where they allegedly "underwent torture after they refused to sign a letter recanting their faith." Haile was not the only Christian to die of torture. Open Doors said at least three other Christians are known to have died since 2005 because of torture in prisons, although that number is believed to be higher.
Speaking of torture in Eritrea's prisons, The United States State Department has said that some detainees have "reportedly been rolled around in oil drums, abused by fellow prisoners, and the women sexually abused." Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki has denied human rights abuses. Presidential spokesman Yemane Gebremeskel said recently that reports of mass arrests are "distorted and exaggerated" and that "people have never been prevented from their right to worship freely."
However Eritrea outlawed its rapidly growing evangelical churches in May 2002, closing their buildings and banning them from meeting together even in private homes. Only the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church, Islam, and the Roman Catholic Church are officially allowed to function, however even these churches have experienced difficulties.
Last month, the deposed prelate of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Abune Antonios, was put under stricter house arrest, amid reports that authorities increased pressure on him following a visit by a United States Congress team to the country.
Analysts say the government views religion, and particularly Christianity, as a threat to its power base. During the country's border war with Ethiopia, the evangelical Pentecostal church expanded rapidly among young people conscripted into the army and sent to the front lines. After the war, the idea of groups of young people - particularly those with a military background - meeting together was seen as a potential threat to the president's rule. (With BosNewsLife Research and reporting from the region).
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