By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent Worthy News
(Worthy News) - At least 150 Christians remained jailed in Eritrea on Thursday after scores of more believers were unexpectedly released since late January, Worthy News learned.
Among 83 Christians freed in recent weeks were believers held in captivity for over a decade in often horrific conditions, said Irish charity Church in Chains.
Those recently released include Mussie Eyob, arrested in February 2011 for preaching to Muslims, several sources confirmed to Worthy News.
Eyob, 40, was detained in Saudi Arabia while preaching outside a mosque in Jeddah, Christian supporters said. He was deported to Eritrea in November 2011 and was held in prison since then, according to rights investigators.
Aklilu Desbele, 46, was also released after being held behind bars in Eritrea since 2008 “because of his commitment to sharing the Gospel,” said Church in Chains. “Like many Christian prisoners in Eritrea, Aklilu has been offered freedom in exchange for renouncing his faith but has refused,” it added. “He has never been tried.”
Among others freed was devoted, Christian Twen Theodros following over 15 years behind bars, Worthy News learned. The 36-year-old was released late last year after being jailed since 2005 for attending an underground prayer meeting.
Eritrean Gospel singer Helen Berhane who was detained and tortured in Eritrea wrote of her friendship with Twen in her autobiography, Song of the Nightingale. They suffered together in the same shipping container and Twen supported her, Christians said.
All three Christian men were released from Mai Serwa prison near the Eritrean capital, Asmara, Christians confirmed.
In addition, 70 prisoners from Evangelical and Orthodox backgrounds were released on February 1 and January 27, said well-informed Church in Chains. They included 21 women and 43 men who had been held for between two and twelve years, the group said.
Most were released from Mai Serwa and Adi Abeito prisons near Asmara on February 1.
Six women who had been detained in September 2020 in Dekemhare, south-east of Asmara, were released from prison on January 27, Church in Chains added.
It recalled that the six women were detained after video footage of them worshipping Christ in a street circulated on social media. Separately in “late January, 13 other Christians who had been arrested in 2020 were released,” the group stressed.
Their release came after 10 long-term Christian prisoners from Mai Serwa prison were freed in the second week of January.
It also follows the unexpected release of 69 Christian prisoners in autumn 2020. They were “Evangelicals and Pentecostals who had been in Mai Serwa prison for between four and 16 years. [Earlier] 22 Methodists from another prison [were released] on July 22, 2020” Church in Chains explained.
Last year in December Eritrean authorities also released 24 Jehovah’s Witnesses. They included three high-profile conscientious objectors. Their cases had been highlighted by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Eritrea to the UN Third Committee in New York in October 2020, rights activists said.
Despite the releases, it has been reported that about 150 Christians now remain in prison in Eritrea, Christian rights activists said. Christians suggested that the releases appear an attempt by authorities to deflect world attention from the involvement of Eritrean troops in the war in Ethiopia’s Tigray region.
Authorities had no known comment about the releases. However, President Isaias Afwerki views devoted Christians and others as a threat to his power base, according to a Worthy News analysis based on reported incidents.
In 2002, the Horn of Africa nation outlawed every religion except Sunni Islam, Eritrean Orthodox, Roman Catholicism, and the Lutheran Church. The authorities shut down many Evangelical and Pentecostal churches and have kept the patriarch of the Orthodox Church under house arrest since January 2007.
Registered churches come under tight government control. And Christians who worship in unregistered churches are regarded as enemies of the state. Afwerki has governed Eritrea since it became an independent country in 1993. His People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDF) is the only political party.
Presidential elections scheduled for 1997 never happened, and a constitution ratified in the same year was never implemented.