Jailed Eritrean Pastor Suffers Mental Breakdown

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

‘Vulnerable’ evangelicals fall seriously ill in prison.

Special to Compass Direct

LOS ANGELES, May 17 (Compass) -- A Protestant pastor arrested four months ago for participating in a church wedding has broken under severe mistreatment at Eritrea’s military training center in Sawa this past week, falling seriously ill and suffering a mental breakdown.

Local sources confirmed that Pastor Oqbamichel Haimanot of the Kale Hiwot (Word of Life) Church has become mentally unstable due to his being subjected to solitary confinement, hard labor and other physical and emotional mistreatment.

The evangelical minister was arrested on January 9 along with two other pastors and 64 church members attending a wedding ceremony in Barentu, in western Eritrea.

Over the past few weeks, military commanders at Sawa had started to release Christians who had attended the Barentu wedding, provided that their families would pay the demanded bail money. But the commanders refused to release Pastor Haimanot, identifying him as a key leader in the outlawed evangelical churches.

When Haimonot’s wife traveled to Sawa near the Sudan border to try to visit her husband last week, the military camp authorities refused to allow her to see him. The pastor and five other believers from the Barentu arrest have refused to sign documents stating that they renounce their evangelical faith.

Currently 16 full-time pastors and nearly 900 Eritrean Christians are known to be jailed in prisons, military confinement camps and shipping containers for meeting secretly for prayer and worship outside government-approved churches.

None of the prisoners have been charged in court or brought to trial by government authorities, who since May 2002 have refused to legalize religious groups outside the Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran and Muslim faiths.

Another jailed church leader who is an insulin-dependent diabetic has been hospitalized at least once in critical condition since his arrest in mid March, according to a report yesterday from Release Eritrea, a London-based partnership advocating against religious persecution in Eritrea.

The family of the Rev. Dr. Tekleab Mengisteab, who has reportedly been unable to obtain the medications required for his diabetic condition, was not allowed to have any contact with him while he was in the hospital. A leader in the Medhane Alem Orthodox Church, a Sunday School renewal movement within the Eritrean Orthodox communion, Mengisteab has been incarcerated in the Wongel Mermera investigation center in central Asmara since March 13.

Release Eritrea also identified Demoze Afwerki, a 67-year-old bank manager detained on March 18, as one of several “vulnerable prisoners” suffering religious persecution in Eritrea. Although Afwerki has links with the unregistered Protestant churches and heads Gideons International in Eritrea, he is a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, one of the four “official” religions enjoying government recognition.

Arrested a year ago this month, well-known Christian singer Helen Berhane continues to be either locked in a container or held in an underground cell at the Mai Serwa military camp under miserable conditions. She has steadfastly refused to sign a promise to stop singing or participating in proscribed evangelical activities.

In a new arrest confirmed in Asmara last week, 45-year-old Girmaye Ambaye was reportedly taken into custody by security police on May 11 for witnessing to people on a city bus. It was Ambaye’s third time to be jailed for his faith in the past two years.

The itinerant evangelist had been arrested before in the spring of 2004 for attending a home prayer meeting in Asmara. Jailed for nearly two months, he was first held in a large warehouse type prison at Adi-Abeto, and later locked into a large metal shipping container with a dozen other prisoners at the Mai Serwa military camp.

Previously, Ambaye had been deported back to Eritrea in August 2003 from Saudi Arabia, where he was imprisoned for five months for participating in Christian worship services and evangelizing Muslim Arabs.

Meanwhile, the National Security headquarters in Asmara opened a new security office in the Ministry of Education last week. The new security branch was formed “to supervise and stop religious activities in all the government schools in the country,” a local source confirmed to Compass. “Now there are security measures in place to report students for any Christian activities.”

In a policy brief on Eritrea released May 5, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom declared that the Eritrean government “engages in systematic and egregious violations of the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief.”

Eritrean government representatives consistently deny that any religious persecution occurs in the country, describing the documented reports of Amnesty International, the U.S. State Department and other sources as “groundless.