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Eritrea Arrests Dozens of Church Leaders

Sunday, 08 January 2006

By BosNewsLife News Center

ASMARA, ERITREA (BosNewsLife)– Concern was mounting Sunday, January 8, over the plight of Christians in Eritrea amid reports that up to 150 evangelical believers, including dozens of pastors, elders and leading laymen have been arrested and detained from their homes or offices.

The Christian leaders from five of Eritrea ’s banned Protestant churches were taken into custody in the past two weeks in the capital Asmara , human rights workers said. The problems reportedly began December 22 when security police were tracking down leaders of the Church of the Living God, along with clergymen and elders in the Full Gospel, Rema, Hallelujah and Philadelphia churches.

One pastor of the Church of the Living God, identified only as Pastor Simon, reportedly escaped shortly after his arrest, but police detained a member of his church board and one of his parishioners.

PASTOR IN HIDING

Pastor Simon is in hiding while his family has been harassed by local security forces demanding that the parents locate their son and hand him Christian news agency over, said Christian news agency Compass Direct.

Police also raided Eritrean businesses owned by Evangelical Christians, arresting owners and staff and closing establishments, said UK-based human rights watchdog Release Eritrea .

“Among those businesses targeted are Roma Music shop and Beilul Photographic studio, where the owner and staff have been taken into custody. [Others include] Gazzella shoe factory, whose owner Mr Yemane and his staff who are Christians are also in custody and Asier photo studios where the owner Mr Joseph and 10 staff member have been arrested.”

SHOP SEALED

Most of the staff members at the photo studio, which remains sealed, are apparently members of the Rema Church . The group added that “many other people including Mr Berhane Araya” of the Ministry of Trade and Industry were also detained.

“Our sources indicate that many unknown people have also gone missing from their homes, work places and streets, it is estimated that as many as 150 people could have fallen victims of this latest purge on Eritrean Christians,” Release Eritrea said.

“In this Christmas [season] many people are celebrating their freedom in different churches around the world for the birth of Jesus Christ , but for the Eritrean Christians this is a dark day,” a source was quoted as saying.

OTHERS DETAINED

Among others reportedly detained were Full Gospel pastor Jorjo Gebreab, two lay leaders and businessman Solomon Mengesteab. 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, Compass Direct said.

“This latest wave of arrests follows the arrest of around twenty people from the area known as Bar jimma earlier this month. Eritrean Christians have urged Release Eritrea to let the world know what is happening to them,” Release Eritrea said.

GOVERNMENT DENIES

Eritrea ‘s government has denied human rights abuses 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. President Isaias Afworki has been quoted as saying that several religious groups have been “duped by foreigners” who sought to “distract from the unity of the Eritrean people and distort the true meaning of religion.”

However church sources say at least 1,750 Eritrean Christians are 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, Compass Direct said.

On December 1, Pope Benedict XVI reportedly 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.”

OFFICIAL CHURCHES

Although 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 reportedly remains under house arrest for opposing government interference in church affairs, including the arrest of three Orthodox priests.

In 2002 the Eritrean 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 religious leaders have been imprisoned, harassed and tortured,” Release Eritrea claimed.