By Worthy News Correspondents Eric Leijenaar and Stefan J. Bos
ASMARA, ERITREA (Worthy News) -- Authorities in Eritra have detained dozens of Christians during a church service as part of a major crackdown on Christian worship, shortly after news emerged that at least two believers died this month in a military concentration camp, rights investigators told Worthy News Thursday, January 29.
Netherlands based Open Doors, which supports Christians in Eritrea and other countries, said 27 believers were detained Sunday, January 25, by police while “celebrating the Lord's Supper,” a reference to what many churches view as the last meal Jesus shared with his twelve disciples before his death, but also celebrated by evangelicals as communion with the "risen Lord."
Open Doors said the latest arrests brings the number of Christians detained since October to "over 300," while in total "nearly 3,000 Christian believers" are be behind bars. Many of are reportedly held in camps and prisons, but advocacy groups claim believers have also been locked up in shipping containers.
The 20 men and seven women detained Sunday, January 25, were reportedly still behind bars Thursday, January 29, at a local police station and were allegedly beaten. More details over there exact whereabouts were not immediately released, apparently because of security concerns.
January was reportedly a difficult month for Christians in Eritrea. Two men, identified as Mogos Hagos Kiflom, 37, and Mehari Gebreneguse Asgedom, 42, died this month in the Mitire Camp, located in north-west Eritrea, described by Christians as a "new military concentration camp" notorious for abuses.
Asgedom, a member of the evangelical Church of the Living God in Mendefera, reportedly died January 16, of torture and complications from diabetes. His death came after fellow Christian Kiflom was said to have died as a result of torture he endured for refusing to recant his faith, Open Doors said.
Open Doors told Worthy News' partner BosNewsLife News Agency earlier that in October Teklesenbet Gebreab Kiflom, 36, died while imprisoned for his faith at the Wi’a Military Confinement center. He was reported to have died after prison commanders refused to give him medical attention for malaria.
Open Doors said it fears that more Christians will soon face mistreatment and detention, as authorities have allegedly stepped up raids in especially house churches. "Nearly 3,000 Christens are now jailed in Eritrea because they belong to the 'wrong' church," Open Doors said. Many of them are evangelical Christians, who emphasize a "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" rather than religious rituals, Worthy News learned.
Since 2002 only the traditional Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran churches have been allowed, although recently some members of the evangelical Faith of Christ Church were reportedly released. Open Doors said their freedom was believed to have been a result of interference by the Religious Affairs Ministry, who apparently concluded that the Christians were not dangerous.
U.S. officials have expressed concerns over "reports of forced recantations of faith and torture of religious detainees, who were held in harsh conditions." However Asmara has denounced such reports as "fabrications" and "childish plots by colonialists" using religious issues to "create division and conflict" in a bid to weaken the country.
Eritrean President Isaias Afewerk has also been criticized for allegedly failing to implement other democratic reforms, as his government has reportedly clamped down on critics and closed private press. Afewerki has dismissed the allegations.