As many of you are aware, there has been deep concern about the increasing restrictions on religious freedom in Eritrea .
In May 2002, the government ordered the closure of all churches not belonging to the Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Lutheran denominations, and effectively rendering all other churches illegal.
Since that time the government has severely persecuted evangelical Christians in particular. They are no longer allowed to hold services even in their own homes or meet in groups larger than five without risking arrest. The mere possession of a Bible can lead to arrest and in some cases, torture. It is now estimated that between 300 and 400 Christians are currently detained without charge in Eritrea .
We have been working closely with members of the Eritrean community to highlight the heightening persecution in that country. One of these is Dr. Berhane Asmelash, an Eritrean physician and church leader who spoke at the Annual Human Rights Conference in November. Dr. Asmelash has since become the Coordinator of Release Eritrea, an organisation newly formed by members of the Eritrean Evangelical Diaspora worldwide to campaign for freedom of religion in Eritrea . The organisations first press release follows below.
Please continue to pray for an end to the repression, for a release of those hold captive and for reconciliation between the various churches of Eritrea .
Also, please address polite letters to the Eritrean Ambassador expressing your deep concern at the continuing harsh treatment of Christians. Article 19 of the Eritrean Constitution allows for freedom of conscience, religion, movement, assembly, organisation and expression of opinion. Many Christians have been held without charge for months and even years, yet Article 17 of the Eritrean Constitution stipulates the right to a fair and public trial, the presumption of innocence and the right of appeal. It also states that anyone arrested should be brought before a court of law within 48 hours of their arrest, while the Eritrean Penal Code states that a person should be charged within 28 days or released. Eritrea has also acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, all of which contain provisions for freedom of religion.
In your letter, draw attention to the governments obligations under national and international law to permit freedom of religion. Ask the Ambassador to urge his government to reconsider its policies in light of the fact that these Christians have a biblical obligation to be loyal citizens and therefore do not constitute a threat to the security or territorial integrity of the nation.
His Excellency Mr Negassi Sengal
Embassy of the State of Eritrea
96 White Lion Street
Release Eritrea calls upon all Eritreans, friends of Eritrea and members of the international community to call on the Government of Eritrea to restore freedom of worship to Eritrean Evangelicals and members of independent Pentecostal churches.
Amidst growing concern for the safety of yet more church leaders imprisoned on the 18th of Nov, Release Eritrea denounces the abuse of basic human rights of Eritrean brethren.
It is to be remembered that all Eritrean Churches not belonging to the Eritrean Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran denominations were illegally shut and their members banned from public worship since May 2002.
As the curb intensifies with leaders of the Orthodox Renewal Movement being targeted, Release Eritrea welcomes the call on the international community to take swift action against severe violators of religious persecution.
Dr. Berhane Asmelash, coordinator of Release Eritrea, stated that with yet more reports of imprisonment of Eritrean Christians, the government of Eritrea has indicated to the international community that it is not prepared to adhere to international agreements for respecting basic human rights of its people, it is time the international community responded with indications that it is not prepared to condone such behaviour.
Release Eritrea is a global partnership of Eritrean Evangelicals standing in solidarity with the persecuted Eritrean church.
On May 22 2002, the PFDJ (the ruling party of Eritrea ) ordered the closure of all churches not belonging to the Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Evangelical Lutheran denominations. So far, at least 36 churches have been closed. Many followers of these churches and their leaders have been imprisoned, harassed and tortured.
On several occasions since then the Eritrean government issued blanket denials of the existence of persecution in the country stating that no groups or persons are persecuted in Eritrea for their beliefs or religion and that people were free to worship according to their wish.
Eritrea is one of the three new countries which the United States recently designated as countries of particular concern for several violations of religious freedom.