By Jeremy Clarke

10/12/09

Ali Abdu
Ali Abdu

NAIROBI (Reuters) – Eritrea said on Thursday it was not aware of reports of an alleged mass arrest of Christians that a rights group says took place in the capital Asmara last weekend.

Eritrea’s Information Minister Ali Abdu told Reuters by phone that he had not seen any reports of arrests and that any arrests would not have been religiously motivated.

“I’ll be very honest with you … if someone is arrested, why is it significant what religion they are?” Ali said. “If they were arrested, I’m sure they were committing a crime.”

International Christian Concern, a Washington D.C.-based rights group, said 30 “mostly elderly” women had been arrested by security forces while praying at a house on Saturday.

The organisation said most of the detainees were members of the Faith Mission Church, an Evangelical Church with a Methodist background.

The rights group said the church had been operating in Eritrea for more than five decades, but was forced underground in 2002 after the government required all religious groups to register.

An Asmara-based Western diplomat said the arrests had taken place, but that there was uncertainty about the number detained.

“There is some confusion on the exact numbers, whether it is exactly 30 who were imprisoned or somewhere around 25, but the incident is true,” the diplomat told Reuters.

U.S. SAYS “HUNDREDS DETAINED” IN 2009

President Isaias Afwerki told Reuters in an interview earlier this year that he was protecting the rights of orthodox religions by rejecting those who would “re-invent them”.

Eritrea’s population is split between various Muslim and Christian groups. It has not yet implemented a 1997 constitution that provides for religious freedom.

Three Christian churches are registered: Eritrean Orthodox, Roman Catholic and the Lutheran Evangelical Church of Eritrea.

The government is suspicious of what it calls radical forms of Islam, along with numerous smaller Protestant churches, Baha’is and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

A recent U.S. report said hundreds of people had been detained in 2009 for their religious beliefs.

The U.S.-based International Christian Concern said more than 3,000 Christians were being held prisoner, sometimes in underground dungeons or old metal shipping containers. It said several had died behind bars from torture or lack of medicine.