By BosNewsLife News Center
ASMARA, ERITREA (BosNewsLife) -- Christian rights activists expressed concern Wednesday, July 11, over reports that a senior Eritrean government official has "categorically denied the existence of religious repression in Eritrea" and dismissed reports of mass detentions of Christians as "hyperbole".
An estimated 2,000 mainly evangelical Christians are believed to be in prisons across the country, including in shipping containers and military camps.
In published remarks the Director of the Office of the President, Yemane Gebremeskel, said reports of mass arrests are â€œdistorted and exaggerated.â€ He said in Eritrea â€œpeople have never
been prevented from their right to worship freelyâ€.
However he reportedly admitted to the â€œperiodic arrestsâ€ of members of "new faiths" who â€œassemble illegallyâ€. Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a major Christian advocacy group, condemned the comments, saying that even leaders of traditional "recognized"
churches can face detention.
"The most prominent is the ordained Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church (EOC), Eritrea â€™s largest and oldest church, who was illegally deposed and indefinitely detained after objecting
to government interference in church affairs and to the arrest of three priests from the EOCâ€™s renewal wing," CSW said.
Gebremeskel has portrayed Eritrea â€™s Christian detainees as members of "small groups" that had emerged â€œin the past seven, eight yearsâ€, and had benefited from secret and undeclared foreign funds, opposed military services, and sown division within â€œtraditionalâ€ faiths, said CSW, which closely monitors the situation.
The official reportedly also described reports of mass clandestine migration from Eritrea as "exaggerated".
In a statement the Director of the Eritrean religious liberty group Release-Eritrea (UK), Berhane Asmelash, said, "It is unfortunate that yet again the government of Eritrea has chosen the path of denial and distortion."
He said he was "particularly shocked to hear Mr. Gebremeskel putting the life-span of these churches at around seven or eight years when in fact every Eritrean knows the long-standing contribution of these churches to the nation, including the independence struggle and also during the border conflict in 1998â€.
Asmelash denied allegations that the mentioned churches received secret foreign funding: "Five years after the closure of these churches and several years after the government has combed through the accounts and operations, no one has been able to produce a shred of evidence to support this accusation".
In addition "if these churches were opposing the National Service what is the explanation for the huge numbers represented in the army?", he wondered
However amid apparent international pressure, Release-Eritrea UK said it learned that Pastor Michael Abraha, who was detained during recent dawn raids that targeted the homes of members of the Kale Hiwot Church in the Dekemhare area, has been released. Other Christians detained with him were also released, the group added.
However the organization said Christians who visited the detainees in the aftermath of the raids were themselves detained and are currently imprisoned "in Wâ€™ia military training camp."
CSW National Director, Stuart Windsor, told BosNewsLife in a statement that the "mass arrests of Christians, and of any Eritreans deemed disloyal to the country, have now been proven beyond dispute."
He said statistics compiled by agencies working to assist refugees worldwide testify "to the rapidly increasing numbers of Eritreans who are risking their lives to cross deserts and seas in order to escape severe repression at home."
By choosing to disregard these facts and to instead "defend the indefensible", the Eritrean government does itself no favors, Windsor argued. "It merely dissipates any international credibility it has left". (With reporting from Eritrea).
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