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The Criminalization of Christianity
By Roberta Leguizamon April 10, 2006

Abdul Rahman, the Afghani man who dominated headlines last week, has been safely spirited away to Italy . Rahman had been imprisoned and threatened with a death sentence for apostasy (i.e. converting from Islam to Christianity). His case created an international uproar, as the U.S. , the United Nations and even Pope Benedict XVI put pressure on Afghanistan to release Rahman and drop the charges against him.
The outcry against this religious persecution in Afghanistan was so deafening that the authorities ultimately relented and released Rahman, suggesting that he was mentally deficient and unable to stand trial. After his release, Rahman told Italian journalists that his exodus to Italy was necessary because “In Kabul they would have killed me, I’m sure of it.”

The unity of the international community against this horrid case of religious persecution was impressive and played no small role in securing Rahman’s release and saving his life. Unfortunately, the widespread persecution of Christians around the world continues unabated and receives almost no attention from the international media. For instance, over the last several months, nearly 2,000 Christians in one African nation have been rounded up and imprisoned. Yet these victims of religious persecution have received nowhere near the attention Rahman received.

At this very moment, the government of Eritrea , a small country on the northeastern coast of Africa, which is bordered by Ethiopia , the Sudan and the Red Sea , is perpetrating vicious human rights abuses against its Christian population. Although Eritrea ’s draft constitution reportedly allows freedom of religion, the ruling party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), has severely restricted religious rights in the country.

As the U.S. State Department reported March 9, 2006, only four religious groups — Orthodox Christians, Muslims, Catholics and members of the Evangelical Church of Eritrea — were approved by the PFDJ and allowed to meet legally. “Members of the non-registered churches continued to be arbitrarily arrested throughout the year (2005),” the report said.

Religious persecution has steadily worsened in the country since May, 2002, when the PFDJ shut down all religious institutions except the four mentioned. A recent report from Human Rights Watch observed:

Members of Pentecostal Christian churches are arrested for possession of Bibles or for attending communal worship. In 2005, the government intensified its persecution of adherents of unregistered religions by raiding wedding parties at private homes. Some clergy of a modernizing wing of the Eritrean Orthodox church were also arrested in 2005. Many of those arrested are beaten or tortured during their arrest or while in captivity.

Jehovah’s Witnesses have been especially mistreated. Some have been detained for a decade for refusing to participate in national military service even though the official penalty is incarceration for no more than three years. The Eritrean government defends its practices on the ground that the unrecognized churches have failed to register, but some religious groups applied for registration in 2002 and have not been registered. The government announced in April 2005 that it soon would register the Seventh Day Adventist denomination, but as of November 2005, it had not done so.

Over the last year, hundreds of Christians have been imprisoned and forced to endure deplorable conditions for the “crime” of being part of an “unregistered” religious organization. Compass Direct reported that at least 250 guests, including the bride and groom, were arrested at a wedding on May 28, 2005. While some were released the next day, 129 individuals remained imprisoned. Reports say their Bibles were confiscated and burned, and they were subjected to insults, mockery, and physical abuse.

The Christian Post reported that in October 2005 “two hundred Christians were arrested and their churches and affiliate humanitarian aid programs were forced to shut down in the latest report of legal actions against Christians in a series of crackdowns on Christian weddings and church officials.”

It isn’t just members of the unregistered churches who are being persecuted. Compass Direct reported in August, 2005, that 78-year-old Abuna Antonios of the Eritrean Orthodox Church was stripped of his patriarchal authority by the government-controlled Holy Synod for, among other things, “his high-level request that the government release some imprisoned Christian ‘traitors’ from jail” and his objection to government interference in the church. Although the Eritrean government initially denied having stripped Antonios of his responsibilities, a formal declaration of his dismissal was released in January 2006.

Others also have trouble. The U.S. State Department noted, “There were some complaints that the government discriminated against the Muslim community and Catholics because the government offered tax relief to Orthodox churches but not to some mosques and Catholic churches.”

On November 2005, Compass reported 1,778 Eritrean Christians were confirmed to be imprisoned for their religious beliefs, including at least 26 full-time Protestant pastors and Orthodox clergy.

That number has continued to increase in 2006. In January, at least 40 pastors, elders, and laymen from five Protestant churches, including the Church of the Living God, the Full Gospel, Rema, Hallelujah, and Philadelphia churches.

Human Rights Watch described the conditions in which these prisoners are held:

Prisoners are often held in secret prisons, including underground cells. Because of the large number of arrests, less prominent prisoners are packed into cargo containers or in other overcrowded prisons. In addition to psychological abuse, solitary confinement and abysmal conditions, escapees report the use of physical torture. Prisoners are suspended from trees with their arms tied behind their backs, a technique known as almaz (diamond). Prisoners are also placed face down, hands tied to feet, a method of torture known as the “helicopter.”

There are dozens of other reports available on Eritrea ’s religious persecution. Yet none of the stories regarding the arrests of dozens, even hundreds of Christians in Eritrea have merited an iota of the attention that one sole Apostate in Afghanistan received. Still, Rahman’s story has stirred up an unprecedented international outcry for religious freedom around the world. Now it is time to turn the spotlight on Eritrea , and make the PFDJ feel the pressure to set their religious prisoners free.

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