More Evangelicals Arrested in Eritrea

Saturday, September 27, 2003

No Word on Fate of 57 Teenagers Jailed at Sawa
Special to Compass Direct

LOS ANGELES, September 27 (Compass) -- Police in the Eritrean capital of Asmara continued the country-wide crackdown against independent Protestant congregations this month, arresting another 12 evangelicals on September 7 while they were meeting in a private house for prayer and worship.

With the exception of an older man hosting the prayer meeting in his home, the arrested Christians were described as young people, all members of the Dubre Bethel Church in Asmara.

Yesterday, after nine days in custody at Asmara’s Police Station No. 5, the 12 prisoners were given an ultimatum by the police chief. He demanded that each one sign a commitment to deny his or her faith in order to be released.

When the six women and six men refused, the police chief last night ordered that all their food rations be withheld until they signed the agreement.

“Up to now, no one among them has been willing to sign the paper,” a local source confirmed today.

Parents of the young people who have visited the police station have been told they can only see their children if they agreed to try to convince them to sign the denial paper. Several parents agreed to the conditions and were reportedly promised they could see their children today. Other parents refused, declaring that their children were over 18 and qualified to make their own decisions.

Meanwhile, local evangelical church leaders have not been able to learn anything further regarding the fate of 57 young people arrested and locked into metal containers since August 19 and 20 as punishment for having Bibles with them during their summer military camp at Sawa.

Although the majority were 11th grade students, some have been confirmed to be older conscripts in their 20s who were already in training at Sawa. An additional five of their number who signed pledges to renounce their evangelical faith were released a week later.

Military commanders confiscated a total of 315 Bibles in the Tigrinya language from the military camp barracks at the time of the youths’ arrest. Translated several centuries ago, the Tigrinya version of the Bible is printed and distributed legally by the Eritrean Bible Society to all churches in the country, including the Eritrean Orthodox Church.

Local authorities have also refused to give any information about the status and whereabouts of 10 evangelicals arrested in Massawa on August 24. However, it was confirmed four days after the arrest that the 10 Protestants had been transferred to a very remote area, down the Red Sea coast toward Assab.

“This is a military area, where disobedient soldiers are sent to be punished,” one source explained, “so we have not been able to find out anything more about them.”

At least 230 evangelical Christians are currently jailed for their faith in Eritrea, where the government refuses to give recognition to any faiths except the four “official” religions: Orthodox Christian, Muslim, Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran.

Some 12 independent Pentecostal and charismatic denominations which represent 20,000 adherents have been targeted since May 2002, when they were ordered to close their church buildings and stop all meetings for worship, even in private homes.