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BosNewsLife – Over 200 evangelical Christians and members of minority churches have been detained in Eritrea this week in unprecedented coordinated raids by the African nation’s security forces, BosNewsLife learned Thursday, October 6.

Religious advocacy group Release Eritrea said many of the Christians were “captured and detained from streets, workplaces and residences in Asmara ,” Eritrea ‘s capital, at the start of this week.

“In an operation that is said to have been the worst of its kind thus far, Eritrean security forces are reported to have detained hundreds whose whereabouts remains undisclosed,” Release Eritrea reported. The raids came just days after Eritrea became the first country to have sanctions applied under the United States religious freedom law, the advocacy group noted. The State department reportedly notified Congress that the secretary of state banned commercial export of certain defense articles to Eritrea , Release Eritrea recalled.

Release Eritrea said that among those detained were people from the Kalehiwet church in Asmara , which had been involved in “an extensive emergency aid and feeding program,” in the troubled nation.

“The entire team of staff of the project including administrative and support staff such as drivers and secretaries have all been detained. Amongst those detained are, the general secretary of the project Mr Ukbay and his administrator Mr Ghebre Michael,” the organization added.

Another Christian Sirak Gebremichael, who had been discharged from military service on health grounds in 2001 and five others of the church “have been detained at the 5th police station near Asmara Airport since Friday 30th of September,” Release Eritrea said.

In a similar raid at the evangelical Rhema Church offices “Akberet Nigussie, office administrator, and a lady visitor from Massawa were detained…It is also reported that office equipments, PC’s and some documents have been removed by security forces from the premises,” the organization claimed.

Since 2002 Eritrea ‘s government 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 and “many followers of these churches and their leaders have been imprisoned, harassed and tortured,” Release Eritrea claimed.

The Eritrean authorities have denied the existence of persecution in the country saying 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. Officials were not immediately available to comment on the latest reported raids.

“The main concern of those who contacted Release-Eritrea is the safety of all those detained. However there is a rising concern for the well-being of the families they have left behind too,” the group said.

It quoted one unidentified Christian as saying to “please remember that in many homes children and women are suffering and have also become victims of persecution. There will be no salary coming into many homes and their lives are in danger. Please pray for us.”

Release Eritrea , which operates from London but has close contacts in the region, is a global partnership of Eritreans and those opposed to what they see as mounting “religious persecution in the country.”