Eritrea denies persecution

Asmara, Eritrea - Eritrea on Tuesday rejected growing complaints of religious persecution from international Christian groups, the latest of which alleged that nearly 250 Eritrean Christians had been arrested so far this year.

"These accusations are groundless," said Yemane Gebremeskel, director of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki's office.

"They are part of a routine allegation due to a lack of knowledge or done in the interest of smearing this country," he told AFP. "So-called human rights groups pick up anything on the internet and give arbitrary figures."

"One cannot question the credentials of this country on religious rights and religious tolerance," Yemane said.

His comments came in response to a report released on Sunday by the British group Christian Today which said that "since the beginning of 2005, at least 241 Christians have been arrested in six cities and towns across Eritrea".

"Many remain in custody in police stations, jails, military camps or even metal shipping containers, subjected to beatings, torture and cruel deprivations," the London-based publication said.

The report cited the US watchdog group Compass Direct, which monitors allegations of persecution of Christians worldwide, as saying that since March more than 150 evangelical Christians had been detained by Eritrean authorities.

In February, the US state department said that reports of arrests on religious grounds in Eritrea had diminished between 2003 and 2004 but still continued.

Arrested for five hours

"Although reports of government abuse of non-registered churches declined in the second half of the year 2004, arbitrary arrests continued," it said in its annual human rights report for Eritrea.

While denying the accusations contained in the report, Yemane said that members of non-registered religious sects could be briefly detained and released with a warning about complying with Eritrean law.

"If a sect assembles without permission, its members are maybe arrested for five hours and then let off with a warning," he said, adding that in some cases those detained were found to be in violation of other laws.

Occasionally, he said a person is detained for evading Eritrea's compulsory national service and is discovered to belong to an unauthorised sect, which can result in unfair complaints that the detainee's religious rights are being violated.

The Eritrean government officially recognises four religious denominations: Muslim, Orthodox, Catholic and the Eritrean Evangelical Church.

Under a decree issued in May 2002, other groups are permitted to worship but must first register with the authorities in Asmara.

The Horn of Africa country has a population of 3.5 million people, half of which are Muslims and half Christians, according to official statistics.