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The Christian Post (12/08/05) – Eritrea ’s government sternly denied its engagement in religious persecution, rejecting the accusations appearing in the latest report from Amnesty International (AI).

On Wednesday, the leading human rights watchdog published a report entitled ” Eritrea : Religious Persecution,” which documented 44 incidents of religious persecution sponsored by the Eritrean authorities since 2003. While at least 26 pastors and priests and some 1,750 evangelical church members, have been detained by the government so far, the report warned that the persecution has intensified in 2005.

Eritrean Information Minister Ali Abdu promptly dismissed the report, criticizing it “unsubstantiated fabrications,” according to Reuters.

The Minister was also quoted by BBC as stating, “Who are these Amnesty International people? Who gave them the right to hand out qualification certificates?”

“We do not want to dignify this politicized report disguised in the name of defending religious freedom,” Abdu also said, according to the U.N. Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN).

He insisted that Eritrea is “one of the very few countries in the world where there has been no religious conflict.”

” Eritrea enjoys religious harmony, and we want to maintain that harmony,” he argued.

The Minister’s claim contradicts AI’s assessment on Eritrea ’s religious freedom situation.

According to AI’s report, Eritrea has been imposing restriction on religious minorities including evangelical Christians, Lutherans and Catholics.

In Eritrea , 90 percent of the population follows the Orthodox Church and Islam. Only 5 percent of the population follows the Roman Catholic faith and about 2 percent follows the Protestant faith. Of the Protestants, about half belong to the Lutheran church, and another half to smaller evangelical and Pentecostal churches.

After a May 2002 decree ordered groups to register or stop their religious activities, many evangelical churches faced a series of crackdown sponsored by authorities. Despite some attempts by religious minorities to register their places of worship, they reportedly received no response from the government and thus meet privately for religious activities.

“Detention of church members has been arbitrary and unlawful, with no arrest warrants,” stated AI’s report. Moreover, the religious prisoners are “commonly tortured or threatened to try to make them sign a statement agreeing to stop their religious worship and abandon their religion as a condition of release.”

A month ago, the U.S. Department of State released its annual International Religious Freedom Report, in which Eritrea was re-designated as one of the eight “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPC) for severe violations of religious freedom.

The 2005 report actually made comments similar to AI’s regarding the religious freedom development of the country, noting that “the [Eritrean] government’s poor respect for religious freedom for minority religious groups continued to worsen.”

The seriousness of Eritrea ’s violation on religious freedom has prompted the United States to implement a sanction against the country in September. The United States has banned the commercial export of some defense items to Eritrea under U.S. legislation.

“The Secretary approved a sanction against Eritrea because the government has refused to reverse its abuses of religious freedom or to respond in any significant way to our efforts at engagement,” said Ambassador John Hanford from the U.S. State Department.

Last month, Pope Benedixt XVI also expressed concern over the lack of religious freedom in Eritrea .

“The Catholic Church is deeply concerned that all citizens should be free to practice their faith and that no one should feel under threat or coercion of any kind in this regard,” the pope told Petros Tseggai Asghedom, the new Eritrean envoy to the Holy See, according to the Catholic Information Service for Africa .

The Eritrean government’s repeated denial to the international criticism of its human rights violations was noted in AI’s Wednesday report.

AI has therefore urged the country to “respond positively” to recommendations.