Eritrea Now Holds 16 Pastors, Nearly 900 Christians in Jail

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Alleged Adventist registration progress under dispute.

Special to Compass Direct

LOS ANGELES, April 20 (Compass) -- Currently 16 full-time pastors are among nearly 900 Eritrean Christians known to be jailed in local prisons, military confinement camps and shipping containers for daring to meet secretly for prayer and worship outside government-sanctioned churches.

Despite a heavy-handed clampdown by Eritrea’s security police, evangelical sources in the tiny northeast African nation have managed to compile a documented list of 883 Christians now being held without trial or charges because of their faith.

Only a handful of prisoners have been released -- after recently being coerced to sign pledges to stop attending religious services of the unregistered, “illegal” denominations.

In an interview April 5 with Agence France Press (AFP), the director of the Eritrean President’s office, Yemane Gebremeskel, claimed that arrested members of the banned Christian groups “are maybe held for five hours and then let off with a warning.” He also accused human rights groups criticizing Eritrea’s violations of religious freedom of getting their information off the internet and giving “arbitrary figures.”

Compass confirmed today the names of 16 pastors currently under arrest in three prison locations in Eritrea. Four are held at the Mai Serwa military camp just north of the capital, two at the Sawa military center near the Sudanese border and 10 in Asmara’s notorious Wongel Mermera investigation center.

The imprisoned clergy include eight Full Gospel Church pastors: Dr. Kiflu Gebremeskel, Haile Naizgi, Hagos Abraha, Abraham Belay, Kidane Gebremeskel, Fanuel Mihreteab, Tewelde Gebreab and Kidane Weldu.

Other pastors include Tesfatsion Hagos and Habteab Oqbamichael (Rema Church), Oqbamichael Haimanot and Isaac Mehari (Kale Hiwot Church), and Yohannes Tesfamichael (New Covenant Church).

In addition, three clerics from Medhane Alem, a Sunday school movement which is part of the Orthodox Church, have also been under arrest since March 13. They are the Rev. Dr. Futsum Kuluberhan, the Rev. Dr. Tekleab Mengisteab and the Rev. Gebremedhin Georgis.

Four of the pastors, all of whom are married with children, have been jailed incommunicado since last year.

Of the 12 other pastors and hundreds of church members arrested since January of this year, most were apprehended either at prayer meetings in homes of fellow believers or while attending wedding ceremonies. Several others were picked up individually from their homes or offices.

According to the compiled list of prisoners, there are 235 evangelical believers jailed at Sawa, 65 at Mai Serwa, 53 in Adi-Abyto, 73 in Assab, 190 in Weaa, 100 in Gelalo, 101 in Alaa, and 16 at Adi Teklizan. A number are still being held in local police stations -- 41 in Asmara and nine in Keren. At least 144 of the jailed Christians are women.

Local Protestant sources confirm that 11 months after her arrest, popular Christian singer Helen Berhane from the Rema Church is still incarcerated at Mai Serwa. Berhane has been alternately held in a metal container or locked in solitary confinement in an underground cell as officials attempt to force her to renounce participation in banned Christian services.

For the past three years, the Eritrean government has refused to register any of the nation’s fast-growing independent Protestant churches, insisting that only three Christian denominations -- the Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran churches -- enjoy government recognition along with Islam.

Adventist Registration Claim Disputed

Meanwhile, sources within Eritrea disputed the government’s recent announcement before an international forum that the Adventist Church’s registration application was nearing completion.

The head of Eritrea’s delegation to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights’ (UNCHR) meeting in Geneva declared on April 5 that his government was in the process of granting official recognition to the Seventh Day Adventist Church.

With Eritrea facing rising accusations of religious intolerance at the annual forum on human rights, Eritrean Ambassador Amare Tekle noted in his “right of reply” statement before the UNCHR that “... the screening process of [the Adventist Church’s] respective applications will be finalized in the near future. We urge other groups to follow the good example.”

Welcoming Tekle’s “positive comments,” the Adventist Church’s U.N. liaison director, Jonathan Gallagher, stated that his church “await[ed] the completion of the registration process with great interest.”

On April 11, Eritrean Information Minister Ali Abdu told AFP, “The Seventh[-day] Adventist Church is about to be authorized. It is at the final stage of the procedure.”

Abdu also said, “Other groups have asked for an authorization, and I’m sure they’ll be given it when the administrative procedure is finished.” Denying charges that hundreds of Eritrean evangelicals had been arrested so far this year, Abdu concluded, “We tolerate everything but intolerance.”

But according to Protestant sources inside Eritrea, “Nothing has changed here on the ground for the Seventh-day Adventists.” Eleven Protestant churches, including the Adventists, have applied for official registration since they were forcibly closed three years ago. “But so far, we haven’t seen any positive progress on any of them,” the sources said.

“For three years now, Eritrean officials are saying that human rights groups abroad are making ‘groundless accusations’ about religious persecution in Eritrea, that it’s all based on arbitrary information off the internet,” one well-informed source told Compass today.

“So is the government willing for outside observers to come and visit the homes of these 16 pastors, to ask their wives if they know where their husbands are? Are they ready to open their prisons and police stations and makeshift container cells to prove these hundreds of missing Christians are not locked up there?”