Prominent Pastor Disappeard in Asmara

Asmara, Eritrea -- A leading evangelical pastor disappeared off the streets of Asmara four days ago, presumably detained by Eritrean security forces and jailed at some unknown location.

Kidane Weldou, a senior pastor of the Full Gospel Church in Asmara, was stopped and apparently taken into custody by Eritrean security forces at mid morning on Friday, March 18. His vehicle was left abandoned near the Cinema Roma off Sematat Avenue in the heart of the Eritrean capital.

According to Release Eritrea, a London-based partnership advocating for the persecuted Eritrean church, Weldou was driving a church-owned pickup truck at the time of his disappearance.

For the past four days, Weldou’s family and church members have been unable to learn anything about the pastor’s whereabouts or the charges under which he is being held.

One of the founders of the Full Gospel Church, Weldou began pastoring years before the tiny northeast Africa nation gained its independence. A biology graduate from Asmara University, he had worked in the Ministry of Education before entering full-time church ministry. In his mid-50s, Weldou is married with four children.

“Yet another arrest,” Release Eritrea coordinator Dr. Berhane Asmelash noted, “makes it clear that far from relenting on this, the government of Eritrea is intensifying the purge.”

Two other leading pastors in the Full Gospel Church, as well as a Rema Evangelical Church pastor, have been jailed for the past 10 months without charges or trial. The Eritrean government has allowed no one to visit them and refused to disclose their whereabouts. (See Compass Direct, “Eritrea Jails Prominent Protestant Leaders,” June 4, 2004.)

Eritrean Skeptical of Religious Freedom 'Breakthrough’

Last week, the U.S. State Department had hinted at a potential breakthrough in its “engagement” with Eritrea, Vietnam and Saudi Arabia, all listed for the first time last September in the Department’s annual religious freedom report as countries of “particular concern” for their flagrant violations of religious freedom.

However, Eritrean evangelicals living abroad remain skeptical. “I don’t think [the Eritrean government is] serious,” one told Compass, noting that fierce rhetoric against the United States continues to appear regularly on Eritrean government websites. “I think the State Department is just doing this to appease Saudi Arabia. These claims have nothing to do with Eritrea or Vietnam. It’s just politics.”

U.S. Accusations Criticized on Eritrean TV

Last month, Eritrea’s sole television channel, Eri TV, aired a talk show hosted by journalist Elias Amare to discuss “Religious Freedom and Tolerance in Eritrea.” Two pro-government guests on the February 25 show reportedly criticized the U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom for failing to invite them to be part of the fact-finding team or consulting analysts for the annual report on Eritrea’s religious liberty record released last September.

Independent Churches Considered Equivalent to Al-Qaeda

Last weekend, an interview with Eritrea’s ambassador to the U.S. was broadcast in the Tigrinya language over the Voice of America (VOA), responding to the U.S. State Department’s 2004 human rights report on Eritrea released on February 28. In particular, Ambassador Girma Asmerom tried to defend his nation’s religious freedom record.

“He said that these Pentecostal, independent churches are the Christian equivalent of Al-Qaeda, and that they are a threat just like the Islamic terrorist groups,” an Eritrean living abroad who had monitored the VOA broadcast on March 19 told Compass.

The ambassador went on to claim that the Eritrean government should be commended for persecuting these evangelical “terrorists” with foreign funding, just as it would be for cracking down on their Islamist counterparts.

In May 2002, the Eritrean government ordered all independent Protestant churches to close down, declaring that only the Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran and Muslim religions were legal. Non-official groups were even forbidden to worship privately in their homes.

The outlawed Protestant groups include Adventist, Presbyterian, Assemblies of God and Methodist-linked churches, as well as indigenous Pentecostal and charismatic congregations, many of them offshoots of various renewal movements within the “official” Christian churches.

Over the past three years, hundreds of pastors, soldiers, women, teenagers, children and elderly worshippers have been jailed for weeks or months after being caught praying, reading the Bible and worshipping together. Many have been beaten and subjected to harsh physical torture that has left them scarred for life.

A total of 230 Christians are known to have been arrested in five cities of Eritrea since the beginning of 2005. Sources within the Kale Hiwot Church have confirmed that at least 120 of their members who have been arrested currently remain in custody.