Authorities Arrest 80-Member Presbyterian Congregation

Asmara, Erirea – In still another police raid in the Eritrean capital, local authorities last weekend arrested 80 members of the Mehrete Yesus Evangelical Presbyterian Church in Asmara at the close of a Sunday worship service.

A U.S. couple as well as several teachers from India working in Eritrea were among those reportedly detained on Sunday (April 29). But local sources confirmed that after four days of incarceration, the two U.S. citizens were released yesterday and allowed to return to their home in Asmara.

“They have been told not to teach or preach, but they haven’t been asked to leave,” a source who requested anonymity stated. Church leaders identified as still under custody included the Rev. Zecharias Abraham, the Presbyterian church’s pastor, and a church elder named Mikias Mekonnen.

Some of the jailed worshippers were women. Initiated by former Sudan Interior Mission staff and affiliated with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the indigenous MehreteYesus Church has existed in Eritrea since the late 1940s.

According to a statement posted today by Release Eritrea, a London-based advocacy group, Abraham has served as head of the Eritrean Evangelical Alliance since the May 2004 arrest of his predecessor, Full Gospel Church leader Haile Niazgi.

The latest raid against Eritrea’s Protestant community came only five days after the government Ministry of Information posted a notice on its website,, announcing that the Eritrean Orthodox Church had elected a new patriarch.

Patriarch Antonios is the most prominent of at least 2,000 Eritrean Christians now under arrest without trial or legal charges solely for their religious beliefs.

The prisoners include dozens of pastors and priests incarcerated in jails, police stations and military camps in 14 different cities and towns, some of them for more than three years.

In the last nine months alone, Compass has confirmed the deaths of three Christians from severe mistreatment while under arrest.

Eritrean security forces began a harsh crackdown against the country’s evangelical Protestant community five years ago, outlawing all churches not under the umbrella of the Orthodox, Catholic or Evangelical Lutheran denominations.

Since May 2002, anyone caught worshipping outside the government-approved religious institutions, either in church buildings or in private homes, has been subjected to arrest, torture and extreme pressure to deny their faith.

Even weddings and other social activities held within Christian communities have been raided and the participants hauled off to jail.

Under the totalitarian regime of President Isaias Afwerki, religious repression has escalated even further in the past two years. Targeted groups have included the Orthodox church’s flourishing renewal movement, a number of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslim leaders who oppose the government-appointed mufti.

At least 40 percent of Eritrea’s citizens consider themselves Coptic Orthodox by birth, with at least half of the population of ethnic Muslim background.