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Eritrea Arrests 68 More Christians in New Clampdown

Government ministry officials jailed, conscripts’ Bibles burned.

Compass Direct

LOS ANGELES, January 23 (Compass Direct News) – Police and military authorities in the East African nation of Eritrea jailed 68 more Christians in three official round-up operations conducted the first week of January.

The new arrests of both Protestant evangelicals and Orthodox renewal movement church members marked the Eritrean government’s widening crackdown against Christians whose faith and freedom to worship have been outlawed for nearly five years.

In an unprecedented arrest, on January 5 police officials in the northern town of Keren took into custody eight staff members working in government ministries.

The jailed Christians are all members of Medhane Alem, a renewal movement within the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Police interrogations reportedly have focused on attempts to force the eight detainees, five men and three women, to identify local leaders of their movement and to name everyone known to be supporting them.

Three Medhane Alem priests have been jailed for nearly two years, and 10 months ago 65 of the group’s lay leaders were excommunicated from the church by government order.

The Keren police station commander told families of the eight imprisoned government staff members that the arrest order had come from higher authorities.

“This is a new strategy of the government,” one local Christian commented, echoing the belief of other area believers. It was the first known arrest of government ministry staff solely for their religious beliefs.

The same day, security police in the southern port city of Assab arrested 25 Christians from their homes, workplaces and schools. All 25 prisoners were incarcerated at the Wi’a Military Camp and subjected to harsh pressures to recant their religious beliefs. Seven of the 25 Christian prisoners are women.

Remarks from security authorities in Assab have indicated that the roundup of local Protestants was expected to continue.

Military Burns Conscripts’ Bibles

In another incident confirmed on January 4, military commanders at the national Sawa Military Center conducted what they termed a “random check-up on the activities of Christian extremists” among student conscripts.

While searching the conscripts’ personal effects, military personnel found 250 Bibles that the Christian students were using in their personal devotional time. After burning all the Bibles before the entire military camp, the commanders arrested 35 of the teenage students and ordered them subjected to severe military punishment, including physical torture.

In May 2002, Eritrea closed down all independent religious groups not operating under the umbrella of the government-sanctioned Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran or Muslim faiths. Anyone caught worshipping outside the four recognized religious institutions, even in private homes, has been subjected to arrest, torture and severe pressure to deny their faith.

Independent Protestant churches have been refused legal registration, and subsequently the Orthodox Church and its flourishing renewal movement also fell out of favor.

Last month the government of Eritrea wrested financial and personnel control away from the Eritrean Orthodox Church, under de facto government control since Patriarch Abune Antonios was placed under house arrest and then divested of his ecclesiastical authority 18 months ago.

More than 2,000 Christians, including pastors and priests from both Protestant and Orthodox churches, are now under arrest in police stations, military camps and jails all across Eritrea because of their religious beliefs. Although many have been incarcerated for months or even years, none have been charged officially or given access to judicial process.

In its 2006 religious freedom report, the U.S. State Department for the third year in a row named Eritrea a “Country of Particular Concern,” designating it one of the worst violators of religious freedom in the world.