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Compass – The number of Eritrean Christians confirmed to be jailed for their religious beliefs has shot up to a total of 1,778, nearly double the documented count six months ago. Although most of the prisoners are members of the independent Protestant churches banned since May 2002, an increasing number of key leaders within the officially registered churches are also being arrested.

At least 26 full-time Protestant pastors and Orthodox clergy are in jail, their personal bank accounts frozen by government order. As a result, one source said, “Their family members are suffering [to] a great degree.”

Held in prisons, military camps and police stations, Eritrea ’s Christian prisoners are located in at least 12 different locations across the country. A total of 175 women are among them. According to the latest breakdown, 561 Christians are jailed at Wi’a, 333 at Mai Serwa, 238 at Gelalo, 175 at Adi-Abyto, 100 at the Massawa police station, 95 at Track C Military Camp, 72 in Asmara police stations, 69 at Sawa, 46 at Assab, 35 in the Mendefera police station, 27 in the Keren police station and 27 in Asmara’s Wongel Mermera investigation center.

“Many believe that the number could be far more,” one source said.

Since the regime of President Isaias Afwerki stripped Eritrean Orthodox Patriarch Abune Antonios of his ecclesiastical authority on August 7, his close associates have also come under fire.

Compass has confirmed that Marigetta Yetbareke, a well-educated theologian and teacher in the Eritrean Orthodox Church, was recently forced to resign his advisory post to the patriarch, under pressure from the government-imposed administrators who have taken over the church.

“He didn’t resist,” an Asmara source told Compass, “so he wrote his resignation and left his responsibility.”

But in late September, Yetbareke was arrested at his home at 6:30 in the morning, reportedly for “actively criticizing” the new church administration. He remains jailed in Asmara ’s Wongel Mermera investigation center, where most of the Protestant pastors and three Medhane Alem priests are also incarcerated.

In late September, three Protestant leaders imprisoned months ago by Eritrean authorities were handed jail sentences of two and three years by kangaroo courts, all conducted by a committee of military commanders.

The extrajudicial prison sentences were meted out to Full Gospel Pastor Kidane Gebremeskel, three years; Eritrea University Prof. Senere Zaid of the Living God Church, two years; and Full Gospel Pastor Fanuel Mihreteab, two years.

The three men had been transferred this summer from Wongel Mermera to Sembel Prison, located on the outskirts of Asmara . Under prison rules, the sentenced prisoners are allowed visitors only once a month, for 25 minutes.

It is not known if the condemned Christians were actually present at their sham court sessions in Asmara . The alleged “crimes” for which the men were sentenced also remain unknown.

According to widely circulated but still unconfirmed reports, even stiffer sentences of five years have been passed against three other Protestant pastors arrested 18 months ago, as well as against the three Orthodox clerics from the Medhane Alem movement jailed this past March.

But to date, there has been no official announcement from government authorities confirming the sentencing of Dr. Kiflu Gebremeskel and Haile Naizgi of the Full Gospel Church, Tesfatsion Hagos of the Rema Church; the Rev. Futsum Kuluberhan; the Rev. Dr. Tekleab Mengisteab; and the Rev. Gebremedhin Georgis of the Medhane Alem Orthodox Church.

One jailed church leader, Full Gospel Pastor Abraham Belay, has been transferred to Wi’a to perform his military service.

Meanwhile, an orchestrated set of police raids last month in several locations of Asmara and the town of Kushete landed at least 51 more Protestant Christians in police detention.

Central offices of both the Kale Hiwot and Rema churches in Asmara were invaded about an hour after they opened on Monday morning, October 3.

Security police arrested all 25 people present at the Kale Hiwot office in the Paradizo district – including the church’s general secretary, identified as Brother Oqbamichel, his administrator, staff members and several visitors. Keys to the office, which oversees several humanitarian aid projects and an orphanage, remain in the hands of the police, who later confiscated the computers, office equipment and files from the building.

That same morning, authorities arrested five women in Rema Church offices in Asmara ’s Teravello district and hauled off their computers and other assets. In still another arrest in Kushete, a small fellowship group of seven people meeting just outside Asmara were detained and sent to police station No. 5.

The previous evening, two leaders in the Full Gospel Church were arrested at their homes in Asmara . One of them, Pastor Hagos Teumai, had been jailed previously for three months in Sawa, after being arrested while attending a wedding ceremony in Barentu.

The other, evangelist Berhane Gebremidhane, was just completing his honeymoon when police arrested him, along with the 11 visitors feting him and his wife in their home. When his new bride went to police station No. 7 the next day to inquire about him, she was also arrested.

Seven mothers with children left at home were among those detained at Asmara’s police station No. 5 from the October 3 Kale Hiwot raid. After three weeks of appeals to the Department of Religious Affairs to negotiate with security officials for their release, the women were finally set free on bail last week.

On one positive note, sources have confirmed that the 20 members of the Hallelujah Church arrested at a September 4 wedding in Mai Teminai were all released on bail the first week of October.

On September 23, Eritrea became the first nation ever sanctioned by the U.S. State Department under the 1998 Religious Freedom Act for failure to address severe violations of religious freedom.

Accusing the United States of “orchestrating a game of ‘religious politics,’” the Eritrean Ministry of Foreign Affairs claimed in an October 5 statement that reports of religious persecution in Eritrea were based on false allegations, exaggeration and “baseless fabrication.”