By Jeremy Clarke

16/12/09

NAIROBI (Reuters) – A group of mostly elderly Christian women said to have been arrested last week for practising a religion not endorsed by the Eritrean government have been released in the capital, a diplomat said on Wednesday.

The women were members of the Faith Mission Church, an evangelical church with a Methodist background that was forced underground when the government required all religious groups to register in 2002, according to a U.S.-based rights group.

Eritrean officials have made no official response to the reports but Information Minister Ali Abdu told Reuters last week he was not aware of any such arrests, adding that they would not have been religiously motivated in any case.

“The 27 women were released today after being held in an Asmara police station since Saturday. We don’t know if any charges were laid,” an Asmara-based diplomat told Reuters. “They were given water, and family members came with food.”

The diplomat said their release was welcome news for families because concern for the women’s health was growing — all were in their forties or older, one was in her seventies, and a number had health concerns that required medicine.

There had been confusion as to how many women had been put behind bars with reports of between 25 and 30.

Eritrea is accused by rights organisations of harassing religious groups who have not been officially registered and approved by the government.

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.

Washington-based International Christian Concern said more than 3,000 Christians were being held prisoner in the country, sometimes in underground dungeons or old metal shipping containers. It said several had died behind bars.

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”.