Eritrean Commanders Intensify Harsh Measures

Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Fifty-Seven Teenage Evangelicals Resist Torture, Five Recant

Special to Compass Direct

LOS ANGELES, August 27 (Compass) -- Fifty-seven teenage Eritrean Christians jailed last week under severe punishment for having Bibles at their military training camp remain locked in metal shipping containers, inside sources confirmed today.

Five of the 11th grade students, however, have reportedly succumbed to a week of harsh treatment at the Sawa Military Training Camp where they were arrested. After signing an agreement to deny their evangelical beliefs and return to the Orthodox Church, the five were released.

During the first days following their August 19 and 20 arrests, the 62 young men and women were allowed to leave the containers briefly every morning at 6 o’clock to relieve themselves. But their commanders, apparently angered by the failure to force most of the students to renounce their Protestant faith, have since refused the teenage conscripts their basic sanitation necessities.

“But the remaining 57 are still strong in their faith,” one source stated.

Cramped metal containers are used frequently by Eritrean authorities as makeshift cells to punish prisoners, subjecting them to extreme temperatures, total darkness and near suffocation for days at a time.

Isolated in mountainous terrain close to Eritrea’s border with Sudan, the Sawa Military Training Camp where all Eritrean citizens are sent for their compulsory national service is located two days’ drive west of Asmara, the Eritrean capital.

Meanwhile, another 10 Protestants from several independent denominations were arrested in the Red Sea port city of Massawa by local police on August 24. The 10 individuals had gathered in a private home for Sunday worship when a single military truck pulled up, arrested them all and took them off to prison.

The latest Sawa and Massawa arrests bring the total number of evangelical Christians in Eritrea known to be imprisoned for their faith to 218. The longest-held among them are 79 soldiers jailed 17 months ago in Assab, where the 63 men and 16 women are being held incommunicado. Handfuls of other Protestant church members arrested in recent months in Adi-Abytoo, Keren, Mendefera, Adi-kualla, Nakfa and Adi-Kihe also remain in jail.

The Eritrean government routinely justifies the arbitrary arrest of independent Protestants, dissident journalists and political opponents by claiming, despite evidence to the contrary, that the individuals have failed to do their military service.

Some 12 independent Pentecostal and charismatic churches totaling 20,000 adherents have been refused legal status by the Eritrean government since May 2002, when they were ordered to stop worshipping.

The Asmara government categorically denies the existence of any religious persecution in Eritrea, although it only recognizes four “official” religions: Orthodox Christian, Muslim, Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran.