By BosNewsLife News Center
ASMARA, ERITREA (BosNewsLife) -- Several key Christian human rights groups have launched a united campaign against what they see as "widespread religious repression" in the Eastern African nation of Eritrea where they claim at least 1,700 Christians are detained for their faith.
A petition supported by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), Open Doors, Release International and Release Eritrea will be handed to the Eritrean Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Negasse Sengal, BosNewsLife learned Monday, March 27.
In the petition they express "grave concern at the restriction of religious freedom imposed on Christians in Eritrea and in particular the harassment, detention and physical abuse in custody of Christians not belonging to the Orthodox, Catholic or Lutheran churches."
The organizations said they "are particularly concerned about the current practice by those in authority of requiring detainees to sign statements agreeing to stop practising their Christian faith, in order to gain their freedom." The human rights groups, which investigate the plight of persecuted Christians, also condemn decree issued in May 2002 which outlawed all Christian actiities that did not take place in the official Orthodox, Evangelical Lutheran or Catholic churches.
"This led to a series of arrests and it is currently estimated that some 1,700 people are detained for their faith," CSW explained in a statement to BosNewsLife. However CSW claimed that "even the authorized churches are not immune from persecution," as "three Orthodox priests, Dr Futsum Gebrenegus, Dr Tekleab Menghisteab and the Reverend Gebremedhin Gebregiorgis, are still in prison after being arrested in November 2004."
In addition the Orthodox Patriarch, Abune Antonios, was forced out of office in January this year and reportedly placed under house arrest, apparently in retaliation for his outspoken criticism of the government’s interference in church matters.
Christians in the military are also jailed for the possession of a Bible and there is evidence of Christians being sent to "the most dangerous positions during times of war in a bid to both test their loyalty to the government and to eliminate them," CSW claimed. It did not specify how it had obtained the evidence.
The Eritrean authorities have denied the existence of persecution in the country saying that "no groups or persons are persecuted" in Eritrea for their beliefs or religion and that people were free to worship according to their wish.
However CSW's Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said the "persecution of the church in Eritrea has increased dramatically over the last few years." He stressed that "nearly two thousand Christians are now in detention simply for refusing to abandon their faith" in Christ. "This petition is part of a concerted campaign to raise religious freedom issues with the government and we would encourage all those who support religious freedom to sign it,” Thomas added.
In a reaction Berhane Asmelash, the Director of Release-Eritrea which represents Eritrean Christians, said the campaign against religious persecution shows that "although the government of Eritrea might want the world to forget the persecuted church of Eritrea, this imitative will be a loud and clear indication that that is not going to be the case'.
Release International's UK Director, Colin King, stressed the campaign was an effort not to forget imprisoned Christians including those "being crammed into a steel shipping container without light or sanitation. Roasted by day, frozen by night in the African desert." He said the actions were "beyond our imagination. But for some Christians in Eritrea this is their reality – to be locked away and tortured just for praying and reading their Bible."
The Chief Executive Officer of Open Doors UK and Ireland stressed his organization believes the campaign "is both a justice issue and a spiritual issue, and our actions need to be backed up with prayer." (With BosNewsLife Research and reports from Eritrea).
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