Christian Children Rounded Up in Eritrea, Rights Group says
Monday, 28 February 2005
ASMARA, ERITREA (BosNewsLife)-- Eritrea's controversial President Isaias Afwerki ended a three day official visit to Pakistan Sunday, February 27, pledging to respect "democratic values" amid pressure at home to release hundreds of Christians, including children. (Pictured: this kind of containers are reportedly used to detain some Christians. Source: Voice Of the Martyrs).
His visit, aimed at boosting Eritrea's international image and its "fight against international terrorism", came after human rights groups expressed concern about the arrests of hundreds of Eritrean Christians, some as young as two years old.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a UK-based human rights group supporting persecuted believers, said 131 children aged between two and 18 were rounded up last week by a group of policemen as they were attending Sunday school at the Medhanie-Alem Orthodox Church in Asmara, the Eritrean capital.
Except those aged two to 14 who were released with their parents, the remaining group of roughly 30 children are still being detained, CSW claimed. Eritrean officials have neither confirmed nor denied the allegations.
CSW quoted one eye-witness as saying that the children were put in a hall at a local police station on February 19, while singing "I am not afraid of persecution, hardships and even death. Nobody can separate me from the Love of Jesus Christ. He died on the cross and he gave me new life."
The policemen allegedly turned on a television and put the volume up high after the children
refused to stop singing. As part of the Orthodox Church, the Medhane Alem group has normally been exempted from the Eritrean government's crackdown against Protestant Christians, some of whom suffer imprisonment in metal shipping containers or underground cells for refusing to renounce their faith, the Compass Direct news agency reported.
It has also added to concern that Eritrea’s four recognized "official" religions, Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran and Islam are no longer safe from persecution.
Last weekend's arrests make a total of over 200 Eritrean Christians arrested by police authorities in the past two months alone, according to church sources. In total at least 550 Christians are in prison because of their religious activities, including Christians caught worshipping during military service and who refused to give up their faith, said human rights watchdog Voice Of the Martyrs.
Human rights watchers also say a Task Force has been set up by the Eritrean government to devastate all Pentecostal and Evangelical Christians by the end of 2005 , apparently because they are the fastest growing Christian group. Officials were not immediately available for comment.
The Eritrean government has denied there is religious persecution in the country and as he ended his trip to Islamabad President Afworki did not address concern about the treatment of religious minorities. He is known to have said in the past however that several religious groups were "duped by foreigners" who sought to "distract from the unity of the Eritrean people and distort the true meaning of religion."
Since May 2002 the Eritrean government ordered the closure of all independent Protestant churches. The All Africa Conference of Church has reportedly condemned the crackdown and urged the government not to use religion to divide the troubled nation of four million people, which emerged from its long war for independence in 1993 and soon plunged into another conflict with Yemen and later with Ethiopia.
Authorities have said the war situation in the African nation demands extraordinary measures, which have apparently been extended to churches.