Eritrean Protestants Arrested at Prayer Meeting

Thursday, May 8, 2003

Asmara Police Jail, Punish 56 Prisoners
Special to Compass Direct

LOS ANGELES, May 8 (Compass) -- Eritrean security police arrested two full-time evangelists and another 54 members of the Rema Church last night in Asmara, hauling them off to a local police station for holding illegal prayer meetings in two homes of their members.

The prayer meetings were in progress in the capital's Kahawta district when security forces raided the homes about 6 p.m., forcing the Protestant believers to stop their worship.

The jailed Christians, 21 women and 35 men, remained under detention today at the No. 7 Police Station in Kahawta, where local sources said they were undergoing 'severe punishment at the hands of police authorities.

Since mid February, Eritrea's local police have subjected more than 300 independent Protestants to heavy beatings, humiliation and death threats to punish them for holding religious meetings without government permission. Most of the banned churches are newly formed Pentecostal and charismatic groups emerging out of local renewal movements begun within the Orthodox Church, although the list includes the long-established Seventh-day Adventist and Presbyterian Evangelical churches.

Since last May, the Eritrean government has revoked official status for all religious groups in the country except the four recognized religions: Orthodox Christian, Muslim, Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran.

The charismatic Rema Church has formed member congregations in cities and towns across the country. They have been harassed repeatedly in recent months. Rema Church and 11 other independent Protestant denominations have been refused official status for more than a year by the Eritrean government.

Fifty of their Asmara church members arrested during a New Year's celebration on January 1 were jailed for 10 days. Further incidents were reported in February of the detention and mistreatment of Rema Church members in Adi-Quala and again in Asmara's Setanta Otoo district in March.


Nine days after 56 other Protestant church members in towns of northern Eritrea were allegedly conscripted for military service, their church leaders in Asmara were reportedly braced for possible arrest as well.

A total of 36 Kale Hiwot Church members and 20 from the Full Gospel Church were taken from their homes or workplaces on April 29 by military police, who claimed they were taking the Christians to the Sawa Military Training Center. As the men and women were led away, their captors taunted them in front of their families and colleagues, declaring that their church's elders were next to be apprehended.

Their whereabouts is still unknown, a church representative said, and their imprisonment has created fear among their respective church leaders.

Meanwhile, at least 77 Eritrean soldiers, 15 of them women, remain jailed in a military prison in Assab for refusing to deny their Pentecostal beliefs and return to the dominant Orthodox Church. Most have been incarcerated for more than a year, and all are being denied contact with relatives or friends.

At the Assab military prison, the Protestant men and women have been put in 44-gallon drums and then rolled in front of their fellow prisoners to torture them. Some are partially paralyzed from these and other assaults, and others suffer severe eye defects and mental imbalance. Among the women, several have been sexually abused by the prison staff.

The government of President Isayas Afewerki formally denied last week that any religious persecution exists in Eritrea.

According to a Freedom House report last month listing Eritrea as one of the world's most repressive regimes, the Afewerki regime has taken significant steps backward and maintained a hostile attitude towards civil society this past year. The report said the Eritrean government's policy in the human rights arena appeared to have been forged by years of struggle against outside occupiers, together with an austere attachment to Marxist principles.