Sixty More Evangelical Christians Jailed

Sixty members of the Rema Charismatic Church in the Eritrean capital of Asmara have been arrested and jailed for holding a New Year’s Eve celebration in the home of one of their church leaders.

Police Detained Everyone Gathered

On the night of December 31, police officials took into custody the hosts of the gathering, Habteab Oqbamichel and his wife Letensae, along with another 23 men and 35 women. According to eyewitnesses of the arrests, at least five of the young men detained were minors.

When police arrived on Friday evening, they halted the celebration, taking everyone present to Asmara’s Police Station No. 5. The following day, January 1, the women were all transferred to Mai-Serwa, a military camp just north of Asmara, where they were put into solitary confinement.

Men and Women Incarcerated at Military Camp

Although the men were thought to have been taken to a separate, unknown location, sources confirmed today that the men are currently incarcerated at Mai-Serwa, as well. Yesterday Letensae Oqbamichel was released, reportedly the only one of the 60 prisoners set free so far.

Well-known Christian singer Helen Berhane has been jailed alone in a metal shipping container at this same military center since last May for refusing to deny her evangelical faith or sign a promise to stop participating in local Protestant activities.

Prisoners held in these containers at Mai-Serwa “where conditions are harsh and infectious diseases such as diarrhea are common” are never charged with any crime or brought to trial, according to an Amnesty International report issued November 26.

'Illegal Religious Activities'

Last weekend’s jailing was Habteab Oqbamichel’s third arrest over what the Eritrean government calls “illegal religious activities.” Last March, the Oqbamichel couple had been arrested at their home and sent to prison along with their five children. Police told Habteab Oqbamichel that Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki had ordered them to arrest anyone not belonging to the four “official” religions recognized by the government: Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran and Muslim.

Accused with trying to “start a new religion,” Oqbamichel and his family were later released. He had previously been arrested and beaten with several dozen other Rema Church members caught holding prayer meetings in their homes in May 2003.

Evangelicals Suffer Severely

Evangelical Christians incarcerated for their faith have suffered severe physical abuse during repeated arrests and harassments since May 2002, when the government closed all their church premises and outlawed worship even in their homes. The banned groups include Pentecostal and charismatic congregations, as well as Adventist, Presbyterian, Assemblies of God and Methodist-linked churches.

Over the past three months, pastors and church members of these independent Protestant denominations have experienced particularly heavy surveillance by police authorities.

Heavy Surveillance

“There are cars parked outside our homes and offices, following us to the post office or wherever we go,” one commented. Some have also been approached by individuals apparently sent to spy on them, claiming they want to join their secret meetings for worship. “We are all being watched.”

The stiffer monitoring pattern began shortly after September 15, when the U.S. State Department for the first time named Eritrea as a “country of particular concern” for its severe religious freedom violations.

The Eritrean Foreign Ministry reacted within hours to the State Department accusations, declaring it was not surprised because “it has been no secret that the CIA and its operatives have been long engaged in fabricating defamatory statements.” The Asmara government flatly denies that any religious persecution exists in the country.

More than 400 Under Arrest

Upwards of 400 evangelicals are believed to be currently under arrest for their faith, including three prominent pastors jailed since last May. There are also scores of young soldiers doing compulsory military service who have been jailed for praying, reading the Bible or worshipping in groups.

Eritrean laws prohibit the detention of any citizen without charges for more than 30 days.

According to BBC correspondent Jonah Fisher, expelled in September after 18 months as an international reporter in Asmara, the Eritrean government seems to be “afraid that people who consider their highest allegiance to be [to] God, at some point may not be patriotic and follow the state’s instructions.”

President Isaias and his government’s leaders were Marxist-oriented freedom fighters who led Eritrea’s 31-year war for independence, finally won in 1993. But over the past three years, the regime has jailed thousands of political dissidents, including prominent members of parliament and journalists as well as minority religious congregations.