Not everyone gets to celebrate freedom in Eritrea

By May 30, 2013

Eritrea (MNN/ODM) — In May 1991, Eritrea won a 30-year independence war against the Ethiopian regime. On May 24, 1993, Eritrea officially declared its independence.

Despite the celebrations this week, however, not everyone is free to celebrate. At roughly the same time, the U.S. released its annual Religious Freedom Report. The report is required by the U.S. Congress International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.

It follows recommendations submitted to the State Department by the independent United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. The countries singled out for special mention for violation of religious freedom in the report were: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan.

The report points out that the Eritrean government is harassing members of unregistered religious groups and detaining many without due process, occasionally for long periods of time, sometimes by informally charging them with threatening national security.

Open Doors USA spokesman Jerry Dykstra confirms this. "There's such secrecy, you never know where these people end up in prison and what happens to them. The fact is, many of them die in prison."

Because of this, mass arrests raise even more concern. Last week, they got several reports from an Eritrean Christian leader who writes, "If I am to describe the situation of religious persecution in Eritrea, I would say it is still at its highest level ever and getting worse."

The leader, who remains anonymous for security reasons, said the atmosphere in Eritrea remains very tense for Christians as the government continues what has been called their most serious campaign against the Church yet.

Dykstra learned of a roundup of a group of college students (of Adi Kihe, almost 70 miles southwest of Asmara). "Last week, 37 Christian students from the College of Arts and Social Sciences were arrested and taken to a military camp. There will be no record of them because they'll never appear in court." It is understood that the students have been taken to the military camp in Dekemhare.

That was followed by another from the same week. "There were five men from the Church of the Living God. Sources did not know where they were being kept." Dykstra goes on to say, "These people were never charged with anything. They were never getting any kind of fair hearing. Most of them die in these prison camps without access to any kind of healthcare at all."

These arrests bring to 191 the number of Christians taken since the beginning of the year. Open Doors has not been notified of any releases and understands that all are still being kept under very harsh imprisonment conditions.

The government refuses to allow Non-Government Organizations access to the prisons. For example, Dykstra notes, "Even such organizations like the Red Cross are not allowed into the country to visit detention centers or count prisoners, and investigate conditions under which prisoners are held. There are no formal prison records available."

Earlier this month Amnesty International (AI) released its report on Eritrea, in which it describes widespread human rights abuses by the government. The report documents how the government has been using "arbitrary arrest and detention without trial on a vast scale to crush all actual and suspected opposition, to silence government critics, and to punish anyone who refuses to comply with the restrictions on human rights imposed by the government." The practice, according to the report, started immediately after independence in 1991 and continues today.

Open Doors sources estimate the number to be considerably less, probably at about 1,200 after the extensive arrest campaign that started at the beginning of the year. Trapped in a Catch-22 between the government, registration, mandatory military service, and semantics of the national constitution, Dykstra says, "They want to obey the laws of the country, but the laws of God and what's found in the Bible are more important." Knowing what the potential price will be, he urges believers to stand with them. "The way we have to pray is that they will keep the faith."

Eritrea is ranked #10 on the Open Doors 2013 World Watch List of the worst persecutors of Christians.

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