By Stefan J. Bos, Special Correspondent Worthy News
(Worthy News) - Eritrea has released dozens of Christians, many of whom spent a decade behind bars for their faith in Christ, well-informed rights activists say.
“There are reports from Eritrea that the government has released 27 Christian prisoners of faith, and hopes are rising that more could follow,” said Britain-based Christian charity Release International late Wednesday.
“There are believed to be 19 men and eight women, who were jailed at Mai Serwa prison, close to the capital Asmara. They were released on Thursday, September 3, and September 8, the group added, citing a “trusted contact.”
There was no immediate confirmation from authorities. However, “There are indications that other Christian prisoners at the jail have been informed they could soon be set free.”
The latest move follows the reported release of 22 Methodist prisoners in July from another prison, mainly women and children.
There are believed to be at least 500 Christian prisoners of faith in Eritrea. Many are held indefinitely under what rights groups appalling conditions. Worthy News learned that several Christian prisoners are kept in shipping containers, where they are exposed to the searing desert heat by day and cold by night. Some are reportedly beaten and tortured to try to force them to renounce their faith in Christ.
In August, Eritrea announced it was releasing some Pentecostal Christians, among others, in a move to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in its overcrowded jails. “The 27 just released are believed to be the first to be allowed to leave,” Release Eritrea said.
Adi Abeto prison, designed to hold 800, had 2,500 inmates, and 500 prisoners were forced to share only 20 toilets at Mai Serwa maximum-security prison, according to several sources.
“We are encouraged by the news of this release of Christian prisoners,” said Paul Robinson, the chief executive of Release International, a British-based charity which supports persecuted Christians. “And we hope others will follow. Our prayers are that this may signal a change of heart in a regime that outlawed many churches in 2002 and has been persecuting and imprisoning Christians ever since. The time has come to let these people go.”
He cautioned that the released Christians are still not free to leave Eritrea. Also, “Some have been behind bars for so long that they have become completely institutionalized. They will need help and support.”
A Release contact was quoted as saying: “All those wasted years! They have been kept like wild animals in a cage.”
Eritrea, a one-party, highly militarized society, has been described by critics as the “North Korea of Africa.” Some 12 percent of the 6-million population has fled the country, according to the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR. Hundreds of thousands of Eritreans have fled the country in recent years, risking their lives to make the arduous journey across the Sahara and the Mediterranean to Europe.
Eritrea keeps tight control over religion. 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.
“Estimates of the number of Christian prisoners of faith in the country range from 3,000 down to 300. Release contacts put the figure at close to 500. Many Christian prisoners have been detained for decades,” Release International
Most Christian prisoners are believed to be Pentecostal or Evangelical. “Many have been held for more than a decade. The prison authorities ban praying aloud, singing, preaching, or reading religious books,” Release Eritrea added.
”Eritrea’s constitution declares: ‘No person may be discriminated against on account of… religion.’ But a UN human rights commission noted attacks on Protestants and Pentecostals were ’part of a diligently planned policy of the government,’” the group complained.
Release International said it repeatedly called on Eritrea to free its Christian prisoners and permit full religious freedom. In 2006, Release International and others submitted a petition to release signed by more than 110,000 people.
President Isaias Afwerki views devoted Christians and others as a threat to his power base. He 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.
“Release is once again calling on Eritrea to set free every Christian prisoner and permit freedom of faith once again in their country,” Robinson stressed.
Through its international network of missions, Release International claims to be active in some 25 countries around the world. The group says it supports pastors, Christian prisoners, and their families; supplying Christian literature and Bibles, “and working for justice.”