Eritrea: Pastor Disappears, 10 Protestants Arrested

Friday, August 24, 2007

Catholic Church ordered to relinquish its network of humanitarian institutions.

LOS ANGELES, August 23 (Compass Direct News) -- Christians in Eritrea confirmed yesterday that a Protestant pastor in Asmara who disappeared 11 days ago remains missing.

Pastor Leule Gebreab of Asmara’s Apostolic Church failed to return home to his family on Sunday, August 12. Since his disappearance, no one among his relatives or congregation has been able to learn anything about his whereabouts, despite inquiries to the local authorities.

“His wife is greatly distressed about his disappearance,” a local source told Compass.

Gebreab, 35, is married with two children, an 8-year-old son and an infant daughter.

Just a week after Gebreab vanished, police arrested 10 members of the Full Gospel Church who had gathered in a home in the Kahawata suburb of Asmara last Sunday morning (August 19). The four women and six men accused of worshipping together were put into detention at Police Station No. 2 in Asmara.

The Eritrean government criminalized all independent Protestant churches in May 2002, closing their buildings and banning them from even meeting together in private homes.

More than 2,000 Eritrean Christians — including dozens of pastors and priests — remain locked up and subjected to severe torture for their religious beliefs in the nation’s jails, police stations and military camps. All have been denied legal counsel or trial, with no written charges filed against them.

During the past year, at least three Christians have died from physical mistreatment while under arrest.

Catholic Institutions Confiscated

In a separate development last week, Eritrean authorities issued an ultimatum to Catholic church leaders on August 16, ordering that all the church’s schools, clinics, orphanages and women’s vocational training centers be turned over to the government’s Ministry of Social Welfare and Labor.

According to an August 21 report issued by Open Doors International, four Catholic bishops promptly sent a letter of protest to the government on August 17. To date the authorities have not responded to their inquiry.

The Faith of Christ Church has confirmed it received similar orders to relinquish control and possession of all its social aid institutions.

The new demands were reportedly based on a 1995 government decree requiring non-governmental welfare initiatives to obtain specific permission from the regime.

Despite the Eritrean government’s controversial banning of all independent Protestant churches, the Catholic Church has official recognition as one of the nation’s four historic religions.

But ongoing resistance from the local Catholic hierarchy against unilateral government demands has brought them under apparent disfavor with the regime.

Since the end of 2003, the Catholic bishops have refused to submit comprehensive reports on their clergy and pastoral activities to the Department of Religious Affairs, insisting that they report only to the Vatican.

They also have vigorously opposed a 2005 government demand that all of their priests and seminarians under the age of 40 must perform military duty. The church has also defied a subsequent government order to either reduce the number of Catholic priests or send them to military service.

According to Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need, the Eritrean authorities have never responded to letters signed by Eritrea’s Catholic bishops, who explained that it was “not in accordance with the clergy’s role” for priests to bear arms.
All Eritrean citizens are required to perform active national service for 18 months, although in practice conscripts enter open-ended terms that may continue arbitrarily for years, without any option for returning to civilian life.

Pope Benedict XVI himself commented on the conscription standoff in December 2005, in his welcome speech to Eritrean Ambassador to the Vatican Petros Tseggai Asghedom.

“In particular I would ask that [the native clergy’s] right to exemption from military service be respected,” the pontiff said. “Eritrea will be better served if they are free to pursue their Christian calling and respective vocations.”

The other three government-sanctioned faiths – the Orthodox and Evangelical Lutheran churches and Islam – have reportedly acquiesced to the regime’s demands to send their clergy to military duty.

Jailed Congregations

According to local sources, the Kale Hiwot Church pastor and 20 members of his congregation arrested in the town of Dekemhare in late May and early June have yet to be released from custody.

In an early Sunday morning raid conducted by security forces on May 27, 20 members of the church in Dekemhare, located 24 miles south of Asmara, were arrested along with their young children.

The detained Christians were incarcerated at two locations, Police Station No. 5 in Asmara and the Adi Abeyto military camp.

Pastor Michael Abraha, who was not present at the time, was later apprehended at his home on June 1, apparently after videotapes confiscated in the earlier raid showed him conducting a wedding ceremony.

Although initially sent to the Alla military confinement camp, Abraha was then transferred with his adult congregation members to Adi Abeyto for further investigation.

“Pastor Michael suffers from diabetes,” a local Christian said, “so he is now experiencing a very hard time from the lack of proper treatment he needs for his day-to-day medical care.”

A long-time pastor and leader in Eritrea’s Kale Hiwot Church, Abraha had been arrested several times previously by the Eritrean security forces, following the government-ordered closure of his church along with all other independent Protestant denominations five years ago.

Begun in the late 1940s, the Kale Hiwot (Word of Life) Church was pioneered by former Sudan Interior Mission personnel.

Separately, the Rev. Zecharias Abraham and 80 worshippers at the Mehrete Yesus Evangelical Presbyterian Church, who had been arrested during Sunday services in Asmara on April 29, were all reported released during the fourth week of May.

A handful of expatriates detained in the raid had been set free previously, just four days after the arrest.

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