The Media Line

Written by Rachelle Kliger
Published Sunday,
A Christian rights group is accusing Eritrea of arresting 30 Christian female worshippers

A Christian rights group is accusing Eritrean authorities of cracking down on a group of 30 Christian female worshippers last week in the capital Asmara.

The government has said it is “not aware” of reports of a mass arrest, which International Christian Concern (ICC) alleges occurred December 5.

Eritrea’s Information Minister Ali Abdu has denied the reports and said any arrests would “not have been religiously motivated,” adding that if they were arrested, he was sure “they were committing a crime.”

The ICC has expressed concern over religious persecution and denial of religious freedom in the northeast African country.

“Most of these women are elderly mothers and grandmothers,” Jonathan Racho, Regional Manager for Africa and South Asia with the ICC told The Media Line. “They did not commit any crime against the state. They just came together to pray.”

“In the past, when Eritreans arrested Christians, they tortured them and sent them to metal shipping containers,” he said. “They also sent Christian detainees to military barracks where they were not given proper medical attention.”

Eritrea has outlawed all but three Christian denominations and Islam among its mixed Christian and Muslim population of around 5.6 million people. The three official Christian denominations are the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Evangelical Church.

“Any Christian groups outside of these three recognized Christian groups are cracked down upon,” Racho said. “The officials have been taking severe action against other evangelical Christians.”

“We don’t have information as to whether they were engaged in mission activity,” he said. “Even if they were doing mission activity … [then] according to international human-rights standards, it’s okay to express your beliefs and your religious opinion. It’s an internationally granted human right to express your opinion regarding your religion.”

“Part of our faith is to be able to bring people to Christ, that’s why we exist as Christians in this world,” Racho continued. “It’s part of our call and part of our faith to evangelize and bring people to Christ, so no law or official should be able to stop us. If they try, we will continue doing it.”

He said reports of the arrests came from relatives of the detained women in the United States, where there is a sizable Eritrean Diaspora.

According to the U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report 2009, the Eritrean government has yet to implement the constitution, ratified in 1997, which provides for religious freedom.

“The government’s record on religious freedom remained poor,” the report said. “The government continued to harass and detain thousands of members of unapproved religious groups and retained substantial control over the four approved religious groups.”

It added that the government failed to approve religious groups that fulfilled the registration requirements, arrested people during religious gatherings and held religious prisoners in harsh conditions for long periods and without due process.

“There continued to be reports of forced recantations of faith and torture of religious detainees,” the report added.

On the civilian level, the report noted a general tolerance in the practice of religion, with the exception of societal attitudes toward Jehovah’s Witnesses and Pentecostal groups.

In January, the U.S. Secretary of State re-designated the country a “Country of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act for particularly severe violations of religious freedom.

“Half the Eritreans are Christians,” Racho said. “The Eritrean government follows the communist ideology where they control the lives of citizens, telling people which church to go to, how to worship and regulating every aspect of their lives. We know there are over 3,000 Christians imprisoned in Eritrea simply because of their faith in Christ or because they decided not to go to a church recognized by the state.”

“Members of the Roman Catholic Church were persecuted, even though the church is recognized,” he added. “The patriarch of the Eritrean orthodox church was put under house arrest and is still under house arrest because he spoke out against government intervention in his church.”