Eritrean Police Jail 51 More Evangelicals

Monday, February 23, 2004

Pastor locked in underground cell.
Special to Compass Direct

LOS ANGELES, February 23 (Compass) -- Police swooped down on a group of Protestant Christians worshiping in secret in the Eritrean capital of Asmara on Sunday, February 16, hauling off to jail the 51 evangelicals present.

Pastor Mengse Tweldemedhane of the Hallelujah Church was arrested along with his congregation in the Edaga Hamuse district of Asmara at 3:30 Sunday afternoon. One individual from the Philadelphia Church and two members of the Full Gospel Church were also among the Christian prisoners.

The 34 men and 17 women were held under arrest at the Adi-Abyto military camp until February 18, when Pastor Tweldemedhane was separated from the group and locked into an underground cell. He remains under severe pressure to renounce his Protestant beliefs and return to the Eritrean Orthodox Church.

Except for four elderly women who were apparently spared from further incarceration, the remaining prisoners were all transferred that same day to the Sawa Military Training Center.

It was confirmed to Compass today that the 46 Christians taken to Sawa are being detained in metal shipping containers and pressured to renounce their faith. Five of them, two women and three men, are reportedly “very ill” and being refused any medical treatment.

Local authorities have reportedly concluded that the pastor and 23 of his imprisoned church members have not done their compulsory military training.

The latest arrests bring to 347 the total number of Protestant Christians known to be jailed in at least nine locations across Eritrea for attending “illegal” worship services, possessing Bibles or witnessing about their faith. Some of them, including a number of soldiers, have been in prison for nearly two years.

All 12 of Eritrea’s independent Protestant denominations were closed in May 2002 by the government, which has refused ever since to grant these churches official registration status. Even small house church meetings have been outlawed. Pastors and church members caught meeting illegally have been subjected to cruel torture and demeaning conditions in an attempt to force them to recant their beliefs.

The only authorized religions recognized by the state are the Eritrean Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran and Muslim faiths.

In a report released December 18, the U.S. State Department cited a mounting number of religious freedom abuses documented in Eritrea during 2003. Although flatly rejecting the report, spokesman Yemane Gebremeskel from the president’s office told Reuters news agency that only four religious groups had existed historically in Eritrea.

In a subsequent press release issued January 6 by the Eritrean Embassy in Washington, D.C., the text claimed that Eritrea’s population included “approximately 14 different religious groups … tolerant of one another’s practices.”