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Another Christian Pastor, Scores of Muslims Jailed in Eritrea

Followers of Muhammad confined for opposing state appointment of chief mufti.

(Compass Direct) – Besides the jailing of another Protestant pastor in February, authorities have also jailed 70 Muslims over the past two years for opposing the government appointment of the chief mufti.

The detention of the Eritreans belonging to Islam – one of the country’s legal religions – does not bode well for Christians, whose churches are banned with the exception of those of the Eritrean Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran faiths. In the past year the government began arresting members of even legal Christian churches.

Informed sources in Asmara confirmed in early April that the 70 Muslim prisoners are confined in one cell at the notorious Wongel Mermera center. One said the Muslims were experiencing “harsh treatment” from security police and guards.

Most of the 28 pastors and priests from the Protestant and Orthodox churches jailed by the Eritrean government are also held at the Wongel Mermera center, where prison authorities have now gathered them in one prison cell.

Since the Christian clerics were reportedly “influencing other prisoners with the gospel,” their jailers separated them from other prisoners.

Asmara sources have confirmed the arrest of Pastor Daniel Heilemichel of the Charismatic Word of Power Church, taken from his home on February 23. The pastor was placed under detention at Asmara ’s Police Station No. 2.

“His wife is in great distress,” a local Christian told Compass, noting that the couple had been married just a month prior to Heilemichel’s arrest.

Severe Torture

The leader of the jailed Muslims continues to be targeted for particularly severe torture in an attempt to force him to convince the others to accept Sheikh Al-Amin Osman Al-Amin as the highest religious authority of Eritrean Muslims.

Although the rebel Muslims have been promised release from prison if they would agree to “respect” Al-Amin’s appointment and present an “official apology” to the mufti, all have refused to do so.

Sheikh Al-Amin was installed as the mufti of Eritrea by the government of President Isaias Afwerki 10 years ago.

But Al-Amin’s jailed opponents declare that he was appointed “without the will and choice of the Muslim community of Eritrea .” Previously, all the mosques throughout the country had selected the mufti themselves, presenting his name for the approval of the government.

In September 2001, the United Nations’ Integrated Region Information Network had reported Al-Amin’s alleged “dismissal” from his post as mufti. This was never confirmed by the government. According to critics of the regime, the government used this rumor to force the mufti into compliance with its demands to control all of the nation’s Islamic institutions.

For the past five years, Sheikh Al-Amin has publicly supported the regime. But after the U.S. State Department named Eritrea as a “Country of Particular Concern” for flagrant violations of religious liberty, he told Agence France-Presse on November 5, 2004, “There is no religious freedom problem in Eritrea .”

Over the past year, Eritrean Muslims writing on opposition websites have accused the Asmara government of “emasculating the seat of the Muslim mufti” and systematically confiscating religious properties.

Eritrean authorities claim that Muslim citizens jailed as political prisoners are suspected of ties with Al-Qaeda or other Muslim extremist groups.

Muslims make up half of the population of the tiny East African state.

Christian Clerics

As for the jailed Christian leaders, “They are in good harmony and in good spirits,” a local Christian told Compass last week. According to one pastor’s message smuggled out of the facility, “Everyone is strong in the Lord and praying for the church under attack.”

After more than a year in prison, Pastor Abraham Belay of the Full Gospel Church was released recently and sent to the Sawa Military Training Center to do his obligatory military service. But medical examiners in Sawa declared him to be in such bad health that he was unfit for military service. He has since returned to his wife and two children in Asmara .

Since independent Protestant churches were closed in May 2002, evangelical congregations have been refused legal registration and forbidden to meet even in private homes for worship. Nearly 1,800 Eritrean Christians are now under arrest in police stations, military camps and prisons and subjected to torture because of their religious beliefs.

Last August the government even moved against the institutions of the official Eritrean Orthodox church, deposing Patriarch Abune Antonios and installing a lay administrator over the church’s Holy Synod.

The patriarch, 78 and in failing health, is reportedly being held incommunicado under house arrest in Asmara . Orthodox sources loyal to him say he fell out of favor with the government for protesting the arrest of three Orthodox priests who still remain jailed without charges.

Although Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenoudah III has declined to comment publicly from Egypt regarding the patriarch’s removal, church canons demand that both Patriarch Antonios and Pope Shenoudah be present at a joint synod to consider any formal charges to remove the patriarch from his ecclesiastically ordained post.