Eritrea Arrests Five More Evangelicals

Wednesday, September 15, 2004

Three Protestant pastors kept incommunicado.

Special to Compass Direct

LOS ANGELES, September 15 (Compass) -- Eritrean security police pounced on five evangelical Christians holding a prayer meeting in their church office in Asmara last week, hauling them off under arrest to a local police station.

Five members of the newly formed New Covenant Church meeting at an office building in the capital were taken into custody about 7:30 in the evening on September 7.

Reportedly six or seven security officials were systematically searching through an entire corridor of offices in the building when they came upon the small group praying together in their office.

After a day’s detention at Police Station No. 2, the one woman among them was released, but the four men were transferred to cells at the Adi-Abyto military camp outside Asmara. Among the jailed men was the pastor, identified only by his first name of Yohannes, and his assistant, named David.

Meanwhile, three leading Protestant pastors jailed since late May remain under arrest in a dungeon-like inner prison in Asmara, where many of Eritrea’s prominent political dissidents incarcerated over the past three years are believed to be held.

At last report, Pastor Tesfatsion Hagos of the Rema Evangelical Church and Full Gospel Church pastors Rev. Haile Naizgi and Dr. Kiflu Gebremeske were being held at Wongel Mermera, a government investigation center located behind Police Station No. 2 in the capital.

“Short-term imprisonment in this place is something which occurs rarely,” a source told Compass. Prison authorities have refused to allow the pastors’ families or friends to deliver any food or other provisions to the men since late August, when they were moved to Wongel Mermera from a local police station.

Popular evangelical Christian singer Helen Berhane also remains jailed in strict isolation in a metal container at Mai Serwa, just north of Asmara. Since her arrest four months ago, Berhane has refused to sign a promise to stop participating in evangelical activities and return to the Orthodox church.

According to reliable sources, an elderly man from the Jehovah’s Witnesses faith who had been incarcerated for many months in a container at Mai Serwa was finally released last week. Leaders of the government-targeted Jehovah’s Witnesses sect had feared for the man’s life, since he was 96 years old and suffering from chronic diarrhea.

Last week, the Eritrean government also expelled the last international journalist based in Asmara, ordering BBC correspondent Jonah Fisher to leave the country within three days. “As a foreigner, I am fortunate,” Fisher wrote in a BBC release on September 10. “Had I been Eritrean, I have little doubt that I would now be in detention.”

The regime of President Issayas Afewerki banned all of Eritrea’s independent Protestant churches in May 2002, ordering their buildings closed and criminalizing any meetings for private worship in members’ homes. The 12 outlawed denominations represent congregations totaling at least 20,000 members.

Along with adherents of Islam, who represent nearly half the population, only the Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran churches are recognized by the Department of Religious Affairs as “official” religions.