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Eritrea ’s Religious Prisoner Count Tops 1,900

Compass Direct

September 8

LOS ANGELES, September 8 – Newly compiled statistics smuggled out of Eritrea indicate that at least 1,918 Eritrean citizens are imprisoned and being subjected to torture and forced labor because of their religious beliefs.

According to a detailed list obtained by Compass last month, 95 percent of these known religious prisoners of conscience are Christians.

A total of 35 pastors, priests and church elders are confirmed under arrest in Asmara ’s Wongel Mermera investigation center. An additional 1,758 Christians of both evangelical Protestant and Orthodox confessions are jailed in 14 other cities and towns.

According to reports compiled by Compass, 163 of these Christian prisoners have been put under arrest since the beginning of 2006. As many as a fourth of all those jailed are believed to have been incarcerated for two years or more.

Additionally, 69 Muslims are being held in Wongel Mermera for opposing the government-appointed mufti. They include Taha Mohammed Noor, a founding member of the Eritrean Liberation Front in 1961 and a member of the Islamic Awqaf (religious foundation).

Arrested in Asmara on November 25, 2005, Noor reportedly has refused under torture to accept government interference with the religious affairs of Eritrean Muslims, who constitute half of the population.

At least 27 Jehovah’s Witnesses are also imprisoned because of their conscientious objections to military conscription, which Eritrean law requires of all citizens, both male and female.

Prisoner Escape

None of those imprisoned for their religious beliefs in the government crackdown begun more than four years ago have been brought before a court of law to be charged or tried.

According to the latest breakdown, 475 Christians are jailed at Wi’a, 250 at Sawa (including 50 students arrested from Mai Nefhee Academy last May), 192 at Dongoloi Ai Ai, 130 at Mai-Serwa, 78 at Adi-Abyto, 55 in Sembel Prison, 155 in various Asmara police stations, 37 in the Keren police station, 22 in the Mendefera police station, 115 at Assab, 97 at Gelalo, 21 in the Dekemhare police station, 56 in the Adi-Kualaa police station, and 75 in the Massawa police station.

During August still another 29 Protestant Christians were arrested in the cities of Asmara , Keren and Massawa, according to the London-based Release Eritrea organization.

Ten evangelicals attending a home prayer meeting in Asmara ’s Edaga Arbi district were arrested on August 17, Release Eritrea reported on August 25. In similar raids in the cities of Keren and Massawa earlier in the month, Eritrean police jailed another 15 and 4 people, respectively.

The only known releases in recent weeks occurred in Wi’a, where a reported handful among the hundreds of Christian soldiers in a military jail were set free after signing statements to recant their evangelical beliefs.

Other prisoners have escaped – into a dangerous desert. Local sources confirmed that 15 of the 130 Christian prisoners being held in metal shipping containers at Assab’s military prison camp managed to escape in the early morning hours of May 16. The men fled south across the desert toward the border with Djibouti, but two days later, military police pursuing them found the bodies of five men who had died of exposure. The fate of the other 10 Christians remains unknown.

Tightened Repression

Deposed by government order in January 2006, Eritrean Orthodox Patriarch Abune Antonios remains under police guard in Asmara , forbidden to leave his residence and now denied any visitors. His unofficial successor, Abune Dioscoros, has yet to be recognized by Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenoudah III in Cairo .

Since March, 65 leaders of the Medhane Alem renewal movement within the Eritrean Orthodox Church have been openly threatened with excommunication if they refuse to confess following “heretical” teachings.

Patriarch Antonios is believed to have fallen out of government favor for protesting the March 2005 arrest of three Orthodox priests active in this Sunday School movement.

The Department of Religious Affairs has refused to allow the Anglican Church in Asmara to supply its own pulpit since October 2005, when the Rev. Nelson Fernandez was summarily ordered out of the country. To the “expressed dismay” of the Anglican congregation, one source said, control of the worship and activities of the church has been handed over to the government-registered Lutheran Church .

Reports are circulating in Asmara that the government plans to shut down the Anglican Elementary School in the near future.

“All the closed churches here are undergoing a great deal of hardship and challenge to exist,” one source stated. Many of the Protestant church leaders are in prison, and their Bibles and church properties confiscated.

But despite ongoing arrests and surveillance, local evangelicals told Compass they were “continuing to meet for worship, prayer and Bible studies” in their homes. “Please pray for God’s protection, especially when we meet for prayer,” one said. “All the churches are in a desperate need of Bibles for their ministries.”

Since May 2002, the Eritrean government has banned all independent religious groups not under the umbrella of the Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran or Muslim confessions.