Eritrea Tightens Noose
January 9 2007
Defying international pressures with brazen denials, the increasingly isolated regime in the Horn of Africa tightened its stranglehold on churches in 2006, torturing Christians to death and wresting control of ecclesiastical leadership and assets. Security police killed two Christians on October 17, two days after arresting them for holding services in a private home south of Asmara . Immanuel Andegergesh, 23, and Kibrom Firemichel, 30, died from torture wounds and severe dehydration in a military camp outside the town of Adi-Quala . Seven other men and three women of the evangelical Rema Church were kept in military confinement with Andegergesh and Firemichel and subjected to furious mistreatment. The deaths came after officials re-imprisoned popular Christian singer Helen Berhane, who was hospitalized as a result of spending 29 months in a metal shipping container; she was released without explanation later that month. Berhanes leg had been seriously damaged as a result of beatings she received for refusing to deny her faith while imprisoned since her arrest in May 2004.
More than 2,000 Eritrean citizens, mostly Christian, are known to be jailed solely for their religious beliefs. In October, Eritrean authorities detained 150 Christians from at least five unrecognized churches. Local sources confirmed to Compass that police authorities were subjecting the detained Christians to beatings and other physical mistreatment. According to eyewitnesses, at least 10 nursing mothers were among the new prisoners, all of them forced to leave their infants behind. In May, two days after a Christian mother was arrested from her home and jailed by Eritrean police, her 6-month-old son died on his sickbed in Nefasit, 10 miles east of Asmara . Ghenet Gebremariam was arrested on May 8 with two other Protestant women who are also mothers with children and members of Nefasits banned Full Gospel Church . They were detained on accusations of actively witnessing about Christ. Two days later, Gebremariams baby, Hazaiel Daniel, died of unknown causes. Subsequently Gebremariam was released on bail.
In September, the Eritrean government demanded that Kale Hiwot Church surrender all its property and physical assets to the government all church buildings, schools, vehicles and other assets. While Eritrea has banned all such independent religious groups not under the umbrella of the government-sanctioned Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran or Muslim faiths since May 2002, in 2006 restrictions and controls on even the four recognized religions accelerated to unprecedented levels. In December, the regime wrested financial and personnel control from the Eritrean Orthodox Church, demanding that all offerings and tithes be deposited directly into a government account. The monthly salaries of all Orthodox priests were to be paid from this government-controlled fund of church income. The government also announced new limits for the number of priests to be allowed to serve in each parish, specifying that any extra priests beyond quota would be required to report to the Wia Military Training Center to perform required military service. The regime of President Isaias Afwerki had removed the churchs ordained Patriarch Abune Antonios from office in August 2005 and placed him under house arrest.