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Eritrea Orders Protestant Assets Confiscated

9/20/06 Eritrea (Compass Direct News) – The Eritrean government demanded this month that the Kale Hiwot Church surrender all its property and physical assets to the government.

The written confiscation order targets possessions of the Protestant church’s relief department, which has for more than 20 years functioned as a legally recognized non-governmental organization (NGO) under the Eritrean Relief and Rehabilitation Commission.

The demand was issued by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs, which has been closing down NGO operations in Eritrea steadily for the past two years. But according to local Christians, this government ministry has no legal authority to issue and enforce such an order.

The sweeping property confiscation would include all church buildings, schools, vehicles and other assets.

Security police raided and closed down the central offices of the Kale Hiwot Church in Asmara ’s Paradizo district last October. They arrested all the church’s administrators and staff, together with a few visitors present at the time. Officers also confiscated the church’s computers, office equipment and files.

Keys to the church offices have remained in the hands of the police ever since.

The raid in effect closed down not only the church office, but also several humanitarian aid projects operated by Kale Hiwot, which oversees an orphanage and kindergartens throughout the country.

“This is a direct attack upon the church,” one source told Compass. “It is the final act of banning this church.”

Three-Phase Crackdown

Local Protestant Christians told Compass they believe that the pervasive government crackdown launched against their churches over the past four years is being carried out in three deliberate steps.

The first step was to arrest pastors and key church leaders, leaving more than 30 of them jailed indefinitely, without any legal charges filed against them.

Then authorities raided and sealed church buildings, with the leaderless congregations forbidden to occupy or use them for worship or other religious activities.

Finally, the government is permanently confiscating all property and assets of these outlawed churches.

Although Kale Hiwot Church leaders have protested the government order, local sources told Compass, “There is no hope that the order will be reversed.”

Since May 2002, the Eritrean government has banned all independent religious groups not under the umbrella of the Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran or Muslim faiths. Dozens of independent Protestant churches have been denied legal registration and outlawed.

Everyone caught worshipping outside these government-sanctioned institutions – even in small handfuls in private homes – is arrested, tortured or subjected to severe pressures to deny their religious beliefs.

Even leaders of the four historically recognized groups are experiencing harsh government restrictions. Ignoring church canons, local lay authorities removed the ordained patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church from his ecclesiastical position in August 2005. Patriarch Abune Antonios has been held under house arrest ever since.

Recently confirmed statistics indicate that at least 1,918 Eritrean citizens are jailed solely for their religious beliefs, without any access to judicial process.