Prisoners from Eritrean Wedding Roundup Mocked, Beaten

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Christian couples now afraid to extend invitations to marriage ceremonies.

Special to Compass Direct

LOS ANGELES, August 23 (Compass) -- Three months after 250 wedding guests were arrested in the Eritrean capital for attending a Protestant Christian wedding, 129 of them remain jailed under severe conditions.

Initially 70 of the arrested guests identified themselves as members of the government-approved Orthodox, Catholic or Lutheran churches, after which police officials in Asmara released them.

Compass has confirmed that the remaining 180 wedding guests were held at Asmara’s Police Station No. 5 for six weeks. The majority belonged to either the Meserete Christos or Full Gospel churches, in addition to members of Tebadasso, a renewal group within Catholicism.

Some of the prisoners had their Bibles confiscated and burned in front of them, and all were subjected to insults and mocking because of their faith. The male prisoners reportedly were subject to beatings.

In mid July, the police station commander assembled the 121 men and 59 women. He told them they were in prison because they and their church leaders were working for the United States to “disrupt the peace and unity of the Eritrean people” and eventually would try to overthrow the Eritrean government.

Shortly afterwards, all the accused were transferred to the Adi-Abeto military camp and placed in solitary confinement. Since then, 51 of the women have been released after signing a pledge not to attend any Protestant Christian activities in the future, including weddings.

Military authorities have so far refused to release the last eight women, two of them minors. Until they sign a complete denial of their evangelical faith, they were told, they will stay in solitary confinement.

The 121 men who had not yet done their compulsory military service have been relocated from Adi-Abeto to the Wi’a military training center, 20 miles south of the Red Sea port of Massawa. Included among them are a pastor of the Meserete Christos Church, an evangelist from the Kale Hiwot church, and the nationally known gospel singer Esayes Stefanos.

Under tightening surveillance by military and security police authorities, wedding couples in Eritrea’s banned churches are now forced to scale down their traditional marriage celebrations. Since singing or other Christian activity in a public place is considered illegal, local evangelical believers have stopped inviting any wedding guests, for fear of exposing them to arrest and imprisonment.

In still another crackdown, the national Security Office recently ordered all regional administrative offices to identify any Protestant Christians among those applying for new or renewed business licenses. To date, nine Protestant men and women have been victimized under this process, their right to conduct legal business revoked or denied.

Three Pastors Relocated, One Released

Meanwhile, Compass has confirmed that Eritrean authorities have shuffled the prison locations of three of the 17 jailed Protestant pastors, released one and possibly reviewed legal charges against two of them.

Full Gospel Church pastors Kidane Gebremeskel and Fanuel Mihreteab have been transferred from the Wongel Mermera investigation center in central Asmara to the Sembel Prison on the city’s outskirts. Eritrea’s largest prison, Sembel usually houses prisoners whose cases are under high court review. Local church authorities have been unable to learn whether actual charges were filed against them or any verdict has been reached on their case.

Full Gospel pastor Abraham Belay, who was arrested with the other two last January, has been relocated to Adi-Abeto, “presumably to be sent to Wi’a for military training,” a source said.

After nearly seven months in prison, Rema Church pastor Habteab Oqbamichael was released last week from the Mai-Serwa military camp. The camp commanders handed down a “final warning” to him, declaring he would be executed for any further religious activities. But Oqbamichael was reported by fellow Christians to be “in good spirits, and [seemingly] not threatened by the warning he received.”

But Kale Hiwot church pastor Oqbamichael Haimanot, who suffered a mental breakdown three months ago under harsh treatment at the Sawa military training center, is reported to be in very poor health. Arrested last January, Haimanot continues to be subjected to hard labor for refusing to renounce his faith and help convince his congregation to return to the Orthodox Church. (See Compass Direct, “Eritrea Now Holds 16 Pastors, Nearly 900 Christians in Jail,” April 20.)

Another jailed Protestant, evangelist Girmaye Ambaye, has endured severe punishment at Asmara’s Police Station No. 1 since his May arrest. This is the second months-long arrest by Eritrean police for Ambaye, 45, who has continued to witness about his faith despite his deteriorating physical condition.

The exact whereabouts or condition of 12 other evangelical pastors arrested and jailed incommunicado over the past 15 months remains unknown.

More than 1,000 of their church members also remain under custody in prisons, military confinement camps, police stations and metal shipping containers, accused of breaking the law by worshipping outside government-approved churches.

Popular Christian singer Helen Berhane has been locked in a shipping container at the Mai-Serwa military camp since March 2004. She was arrested for her latest music tape, accused of “corrupting” Eritrean young people.

In May 2002, the Eritrean government banned all religious groups outside the Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran and Muslim faiths. Authorities have since refused to legalize the country’s 12 independent Protestant denominations, arresting and jailing any of their 20,000 members caught praying, singing or worshipping in now illegal church buildings or even in their own homes.

Copyright 2005 Compass Direct