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Eritrea Rounds Up Leaders from Five Churches

Asmara security police arrest 40 Protestant Christians in past two weeks.

LOS ANGELES, January 4 (Compass) – At least 40 pastors, elders and leading laymen from five of Eritrea’s banned Protestant churches have been arrested from their homes or offices in the past two weeks in the capital of Asmara.

Starting early on the morning of December 22, security police began tracking down leaders of the Church of the Living God, along with clergymen and elders in the Full Gospel, Rema, Hallelujah and Philadelphia churches.

“The security office has a list of church leaders who should be taken into custody,” a local source reported after the raids began. All Christian worship is forbidden by the repressive East African regime, even in private homes, except under the auspices of the historic, officially recognized Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran churches.

During the initial series of pre-Christmas raids, one Protestant pastor managed to escape from security authorities shortly after his arrest.

Identified only as Pastor Simon, the evangelical leader is believed to be in hiding in the city. His family has been harassed and threatened almost daily by security authorities, who are demanding that the parents locate their son and return him to police custody.

Originally from one of the Medhane Alem revival groups within the Orthodox Church, Pastor Simon is a minister in the Church of the Living God.

In an apparent attempt to force Pastor Simon to turn himself in, police have arrested a member of his church board, a government worker in the capital’s Civil Servants Office identified as Mr. Tesfagabiet.

Another of Pastor Simon’s parishioners, the owner of Gazella Shoe Factory named Mr. Yemane, was also arrested on December 22.

The same day, Full Gospel pastor Jorjo Gebreab was arrested along with two lay leaders, businessman Solomon Mengesteab and Berhane Araya, a government employee at the Ministry of Trade and Industry. At least eight other Full Gospel pastors arrested during the past two years remain jailed.

From the Rema Church , Pastor Abraham Tesfagergsh has been arrested and sent to jail along with one of his church elders, Habteab Oqbamichel. The latter’s December arrest marked Oqbamichel’s fifth imprisonment for participating in Eritrea ’s outlawed evangelical churches since they were ordered to close in May 2002.

Another elder from the Rema Church , identified only as Mr. Yosief, was arrested at his Photo Asier shop, along with 15 of his employees. Most of his staff members at the photo studio, which remains sealed, are members of the Rema Church .

Police also targeted the Roma Music Shop, run by members of the Philadelphia Church . The establishment was raided and then sealed in the roundup, with all 15 people present at the time taken to prison. The music shop was the main source of Christian materials, music tapes and books for Protestant evangelicals in Asmara .

In addition, police are reportedly searching for Pastor Simon Tekie of the Philadelphia Church .

From the Hallelujah Church , police arrested the denomination’s leading elder, an auditor named Mr. Aklilu.

Two other Protestant-owned businesses, the Galaxy Music Shop and the Belul Photo Shop, were closed down and sealed by security police “only because they have Christian owners,” a source confirmed to Compass.

“This Christmas many people are celebrating their freedom in different churches around the world for the birth of Jesus Christ,” according to a source quoted in a December 26 press release from London-based Release Eritrea . “But for the Eritrean Christians, this is a dark day.”

Before the December arrests, at least 1,750 Eritrean Christians were confirmed to be jailed in police stations, military training camps and prisons in 12 locations across the East African nation. To date 28 clergymen are among them, some held in underground cells and metal shipping containers under torturous conditions for refusing to recant their evangelical beliefs.

On December 1, Pope Benedict XVI told Eritrea ’s new ambassador to the Vatican that the Catholic Church was “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.”

Although the Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran churches are recognized officially by the Eritrean government, some of their members have also been jailed and threatened by security officials during the past year.

Orthodox Patriarch Abune Antonios was stripped of his ecclesiastical authority in August and remains under house arrest for opposing government interference in church affairs, including the arrest of three Orthodox priests.