To coup, or not to coup?

By January 23, 2013

Eritrea (MNN) — The buzz word people are using to describe Eritrea's events over the last 48 hours is "coup," but do the signs match an actual coup d'état?

By the government's admission, it was a takeover effort, however small, however failed. Todd Nettleton, a spokesman for the Voice of the Martyrs USA, explains, "Some soldiers surrounded the Ministry of Information in the capital city of Asmara on Monday. They forced a minister to read a statement on State TV in Eritrea. However, it seems that he only got a few sentences into the statement before the TV broadcast signal was cut."

Government troops quelled the would-be rebellion before it got started. However, in a tightly-controlled regime like Eritrea, Nettleton notes, "It seems to be sort of a ‘blip' on the radar, but the fact that there were soldiers acting directly against the government perhaps is a sign of building unrest within Eritrea. Who knows what it means for the future?"

That begs the question of what the else calm facade is hiding. What of the fate of the mutinous soldiers? Nettleton says, "I certainly would not want to be one of these soldiers now, after they have surrendered, because we know that the situation in Eritrean prisons  for Christians is desperate, and obviously, for political enemies of the regime."

The soldiers' demands were two-fold: "They wanted to return to the parameters that were laid down in the constitution of 1997. It also said that they wanted to release political prisoners."

Since independence in 1993, Eritrea has been a one-party state. The government has come under fire by human rights watchdogs who call the regime one of the world's most repressive. That's an assessment Open Doors agrees with.

Open Doors, which comes alongside the persecuted church, keeps tabs on the world's 50 worst countries known for their oppression of Christians. On that list, Eritrea ranks 10th. And that's not a number likely to change for the better in the near future, says Open Doors' spokesman Jerry Dykstra.

In fact, he says just hours before news of the failed coup, "At least 10 leaders of the churches (banned by the government ten years ago) have been rounded up in the past day or two."

Eritrean opposition activists exiled in neighboring Ethiopia said there was growing dissent within the Eritrean military, especially over economic hardships. Of the coup, Nettleton says it might be the first crack in the mask. "The fact that this [involves] soldiers and people in the military, that seems to say that the disenchantment with the leadership there is spreading." He adds, "I think the message that I would take from it is that Eritrea's people are not happy being oppressed under the hand of the president."

Then, there's word that the health of the current president, Isaias Afewerki, is worsening. That might not actually be a positive swing for the oppressed Christians, though, Dykstra reflects. "There is some sense from Open Doors researchers that perhaps a form of radical Islam may take over the country with the death of the president." In short, Eritrea's Christians could find themselves facing a situation similar to those Christians in the newly re-formed Egypt.

As such, church leaders fear that this particular campaign is far more serious because it wants to "eradicate the underground church by targeting its key leaders around the country." If that's true, the death tolls will start climbing. Dykstra says already, "31 Christians died in prisons last year. It's kind of hard to put an estimate on the number of Christians in prison. Last year, it was [estimated] at around 1200."

According to Open Doors, since news of the renewed systematic arrests emerged, several church leaders have gone into hiding for a second time in only a few months. According to trusted sources close to the events in Eritrea, church leaders have remained in good spirits despite these pressures.

For Christians in Eritrea, the past few months have been somewhat of a roller-coaster ride. After the death of the Ethiopian Prime Minister in August last year, there was heightened tension in Eritrea. Christians testified that talk of renewed fighting between Eritrea and Ethiopia after the demise of one of their long-time rivals led to a very grim atmosphere.

There were reports of the government circulating rifles to households in case war broke out. Some Christians described those months of uncertainty as their darkest night while praying earnestly for the light of a new dawn for their country. Nettleton says, "We want to pray for the church as a whole. One of the great challenges is existing in a situation where no public services are allowed. Anytime Christians gather together–evangelical Christians, it's not legal."

Timing now on outreach work will be critical. Anyone viewed as an enemy could be more at-risk for trouble. Nettleton explains, "The president of Eritrea will be watching this and saying, ‘We need to get a handle on this quickly,' which in the short term, perhaps, is going to mean more oppression and more control. It's hard to say at this point what this means."

Dykstra says with circumstances so uncertain, "They're asking for our prayers because of this situation, especially with the loss of the leadership of the 10 Christian leaders."

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