Authorities Arrest Sunday School Group

A group of Sunday School teachers and their students were arrested last weekend in the Eritrean capital of Asmara while holding classes in their church compound.

The 27 Christians, all members of the Medhane Alem Orthodox Church in Asmara, were apprehended during their Christian instruction classes at the church compound on Saturday morning, February 19.

Most of the Sunday School students are young people, who together with their teachers remain jailed at a local police station.

A Sunday School ministry within the Eritrean Orthodox church, the Medhane Alem group has normally been exempted from the Eritrean government’s harsh crackdown against evangelical Protestant churches.

However, Compass has confirmed that in early February, the entire Medhane Alem ministry was ordered closed down by government officials. No explanation has been given for outlawing the movement.

In one previous incident reported in March last year, a Medhane Alem meeting place in downtown Asmara was sealed by police, with the group’s lay leader detained for investigations for one day. Reportedly the ordained Orthodox priest directing the Sunday School ministry has been under police investigation during the past year.

Religious groups outside Eritrea’s “official” four religions -- Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran and Islam -- were all ordered to close down in May 2002. The presidential decree made all worship meetings illegal for about 13 independent Protestant denominations as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Baha’is, even if the meetings are held in private homes.

Over the past three years, more than 400 Christian believers caught praying, studying the Bible or worshipping outside the government-recognized church buildings have been jailed and tortured. Some who refused to sign a promise to renounce their faith have been incarcerated in metal shipping containers or underground cells.

Among them are three prominent Protestant pastors who have been held incommunicado since May 2004 by the Eritrean government, which has refused to file charges against them or bring them to court.

Last weekend’s arrests make a total of 214 Eritrean Christians who have been put under arrest by police authorities in the past two months alone.