Eritrea Jails 170 Protestant Christians

Wednesday, April 9, 2003

Another 74 Still Held in Military Prison

ASMARA, Eritrea, April 9 (Compass) -- A total of 170 Protestant Christians have been jailed, beaten and threatened with death by Eritrean security forces in a harsh crackdown during February and March.

Since the Asmara government closed 12 Pentecostal and charismatic churches last May, the tiny nation along the eastern tip of Africa has stalled official registration status for all of these young Protestant churches, now containing more than 20,000 believers.

In five separate incidents in four cities over the past two months, Eritrean security police barged into worship services and even a wedding ceremony to jail men, women and children for practicing what government officials called “a new religion.”

All the prisoners were held incommunicado while under arrest. They were eventually released individually on bail to relatives or friends, who were forced to put up their personal property as bond to secure their release. No formal charges were filed against them, nor did they ever appear before a court of law.

The Eritrean government recognizes only four “official” religions, identified as Orthodox Christian (40 percent), Muslim (50 percent), Catholic (5 percent) and Evangelical Christian, a Protestant church begun in the late 19th century by Swedish Lutheran missionaries, (2 percent).

The jailed Protestants, who were detained in humiliating conditions from three to 15 days, were subjected to repeated beatings, cursing and threats for refusing to return to the historically dominant Orthodox Church faith.

In the first incident on February 16, seventeen members of the Rema Church in Adi-Quala, 70 miles south of the capital Asmara, were arrested by security police while holding Sunday worship in a member’s home. All were jailed for 15 days, including the widow hosting the gathering and three other older women. Some of the prisoners were reportedly beaten with sticks.

Two weeks later, security police raided a rented hall during a wedding ceremony for a young Pentecostal couple in the coastal city of Massawa. The church leader conducting the March 2 marriage service was arrested after the ceremony concluded and jailed for five days.

The following week, 36 members of the Full Gospel Church were arrested for three days when they gathered in a member’s home in Keren, a Muslim-dominated town 55 miles northwest of Asmara. Local police claimed that Muslims in the neighborhood had complained to them about the March 9 gathering. The imprisoned congregation included 16 women and seven soldiers. The soldiers received severe beatings and hard labor punishments when sent back to military duty.

On March 16, seventy-two members of three congregations in Asmara were arrested during a prayer and preaching service in a member’s home in the Setanta Otoo district of the capital. Police jailed the worshippers from the Kale Hiwot Church, the Full Gospel Church and the Rema Church in metal container cells at the Maiserwa Military Prison near Keren. Although most of the prisoners were young people, a Rema Church elder in his 60’s was among them.

Designed as severe punishment cells, the metal containers had no windows and only a small door, subjecting the prisoners to near suffocation and intense physical discomfort. After 15 days, security police allowed families to “bail” their jailed relatives, issuing a stern warning to them that the Pentecostal believers must never again try to meet for worship or evangelize anyone, anywhere.

In the last reported incident on March 23, members of Asmara’s Philadelphia Church were meeting for choir practice and Bible study on Sunday afternoon when some 15 policemen armed with machine guns, pistols and long sticks entered the premises. The 40 people present, three of them children, were taken by bus to Police Station No. 4 in the Paradiso district, where officers reportedly kicked and beat some of the men.

When the church’s pastor learned about the arrests several hours later, he took three other church members with him to inquire at the police station. All four were promptly arrested as well, with the pastor isolated from the rest of his congregation.

The morning after his arrest, the pastor was brought out into the prison courtyard and publicly tortured and humiliated in front of his jailed congregation. Guards forced the pastor, who limps noticeably from having polio as a child, to take off his shoes and walk barefoot over sharp, jagged pebbles for a half hour. Although his feet did not bleed, it was “very, very painful,” one source confirmed to Compass.

That same morning, the three children who had been separated from the rest of the group were beaten and released, with strict warnings to “never again” attend such religious meetings.

The Philadelphia Church prisoners were crammed into two cells, segregating the men and women. One local source said there was barely room in the men’s cell for all of them to lie down to sleep at night. “We were told to relieve ourselves in the cell, but there was no place for that,” the source said. “The cell was filthy and very hot, and we were suffocating to get air, a witness said. The cells were kept locked all day except for a half-hour at 5 a.m. when prisoners were allowed out to go to the toilet.

The detained church members were later transferred to the Adi Abito Military Prison outside Asmara, away from their pastor. Although military guards told them that their pastor had denied his beliefs and promised to return to the Orthodox Church, the congregation all refused to believe it. “Anyway, Jesus is our Savior too, not just our pastor’s,” they reportedly told the guards. “We will not deny Him.”

After eight days in jail, the pastor and most of his congregation were released on bail. Relatives who guaranteed bail for them were forced to sign a statement acknowledging that if a bailed prisoner was caught meeting at the church building or even in his home with more than three others, he would be liable for execution.


In a separate incident, 74 Eritrean soldiers from various Pentecostal congregations incarcerated more than a year ago remain jailed at hard labor in a military prison near the southern port city of Assab for refusing to recant their personal religious beliefs and return to the Orthodox Church.

The soldiers, 13 of them women, were first arrested on February 17 last year, along with 59 civilians from three local congregations gathered for Sunday worship. All 133 worshippers were released the following day, but two weeks later, military authorities re-arrested the soldiers and incarcerated them at the Zone Four Military Prison near Assab.

About 10 weeks after they were jailed, prison authorities put the Pentecostal soldiers in solitary confinement in very small, unlighted cells. For weeks, they were dragged out repeatedly to be beaten all over their bodies with iron rods encased in plastic. “It was very hurtful, and we bled terribly from these beatings,” one of the flogged soldiers managed to inform a source. “This was done in front of the others, while our tormentors demanded that we deny our faith in Jesus.”

Reportedly, several more soldiers “caught” reading their Bibles or praying in small groups in recent months have been arrested and jailed with the original 74 soldiers.

Families and friends of the jailed soldiers, who range from their early 20s to 40 years of age, have been refused any contact with them over the past 13 months. Several are married with families.

Although the 1997 Constitution of Eritrea guarantees religious freedom to all citizens, Eritrea’s totalitarian government has become increasingly restrictive against the newer Protestant churches mushrooming across the country within the past five years. Many are led by former members of the Medhanie Alam renewal movement begun a decade ago within the Eritrean Orthodox Church.

Hundreds of these Christians and their spiritual leaders, excommunicated from the Orthodox Church in 1997, flowed into existing Pentecostal churches. Others began their own local fellowships.

Section Four of Article 19 of the 1997 Eritrean Constitution guarantees that “Every person shall have the freedom to practice any religion and to manifest such practice.” However, representatives of the government’s Religious Affairs Department are now insisting that in order to enjoy legal status, religious groups must “conform to local traditions.”

Last May, the Department of Religious Affairs ordered the Pentecostal and charismatic congregations, as well as the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Buddhists and the Bahai religious movement, to complete a wide-ranging application process. Until their registration process was completed, the government decreed, these churches and groups were prohibited from meeting.

Among the requirements were audited financial reports for the past 10 years; a list of every member’s address, contact information and personal property; names and passport numbers of every foreign visitor; financial dealings with all international sponsors; and a listing of which theological doctrines it holds in comparison with other churches’ beliefs.

Eleven months later, the closed churches still have no answer from their government. When church leaders met with the newly appointed director of Religious Affairs on April 1 to press for a response, he declared that he was uninformed on the issue and would have to get back to them later about it.

“They are cheating us by always postponing our meetings about this, changing the director of the department, and claiming our registrations are ‘in process,’” one church leader declared last week. “We have waited now for 11 months. Our government must act seriously, to reply to us in a responsible way.”