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Compass – Nearly 10 months after Pastor Oqbamichael Tekle-Haimonot was arrested at a wedding in western Eritrea , authorities at the Sawa military training center have released the ailing evangelical leader on bail. A minister in the Kale Hiwot (Word of Life) Church, Haimonot had suffered a severe breakdown last May after being subjected to solitary confinement, hard labor and other physical and emotional mistreatment at Sawa.

But the evangelical pastor’s health has improved significantly since his release in late October. “He is in good spirits,” a fellow Protestant confirmed this week. Bail conditions for the pastor’s release required that he sign a document (prepared by military authorities) promising that he would not attend any illegal Christian meetings in the future.

Since May 2002, the Eritrean government has banned any religious worship gatherings apart from those of the officially recognized Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran and Muslim faiths, closing all independent churches. Authorities have even cracked down on small, home prayer groups and Protestant wedding ceremonies in public halls.

Haimonot was arrested in Barentu on January 9 with two other evangelical pastors and 64 of their church members, all of whom were then sent to Sawa for “military punishment” for participation in “illegal religious activities.” The group of Protestants had been escorting a bride to her wedding ceremony when security police halted the procession and jailed them all, including the bride and groom.

Within four months, many of the elderly and young children among those arrested were released after posting substantial bail payments, although Haimonot and five other evangelicals were refused release.

Meanwhile, Christians jailed in a security police raid against 25 Kale Hiwot Church members at their Asmara church headquarters five weeks ago were all released on bail yesterday morning from Police Station No. 5 in the capital.

These Protestant prisoners were instructed to call someone to post bail for them, and then required to sign a prepared statement promising not to attend any non-registered Christian meetings in the future. All of the women and a few other individuals in the Kale Hiwot raid had been released earlier, after three weeks of continuous interrogations.

The recent releases drop the total number of Eritrean Christians known to be jailed in police stations, military training camps and prisons by the regime of President Isaias Afwerki down to 1,752. At least 26 full-time Protestant pastors and Orthodox clergy are among them, some held in underground cells and metal shipping containers under torturous conditions.

Even the Eritrean Orthodox Church, dating back to the fourth century, has come under direct government fire since August, when Patriarch Abune Antonios was stripped of his ecclesiastical authority and relegated to a ceremonial role. The patriarch remains under virtual house arrest, reportedly for protesting the arrest of three ordained Orthodox priests and resisting other government interference in church affairs.

Pope Shenoudah III, spiritual head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, has declined public comment on the sacking of the Eritrean patriarch. But in September, his official magazine, El Keraza, noted that the “problem of the Patriarch of Eritrea is a concern of the whole world’s church circle.”

From Egypt , the Coptic prelate requested prayer for Patriarch Antonios during this “great tribulation.”