Eritrea is again persecuting even officially recognised religious bodies with the arrest last week of five Christians set to be ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church, according to Open Doors.
The Christian support organisation announced that security officials in the capital, Asmara, arrested Petros Yosief, Bemnet Tesfay, Aklilu Tesfay, Ermias Hadgu and Aron Mehretu. The arrests came shortly after the church announced on April 20 that they would be ordained for pastoral ministry.
“The arrests clearly show how even government recognised churches, namely the Catholic, [Eritrean] Orthodox [Church] and Evangelical Lutheran churches, are not free from government control,” said an Open Doors source on condition of anonymity.
Authorities in Eritrea, where an estimated 1,500 Christians are languishing in prison for their faith, are holding the would-be Evangelical Lutheran leaders at Police Station Number 2 in Asmara, according to an Open Doors press statement.
“The arrest of these pastoral candidates reminds us of one of the greatest challenges churches in Eritrea face,” said an Open Doors worker. “Due to the constant turnover of pastors due to arrest or threats, continuous and biblically consistent pastoral care for Christians is hampered.”
In 2005, Eritrean authorities cracked down on the officially recognised Eritrean Orthodox Church (EOC), persecuting those who supported a renewal movement within the church and who protested religious persecution. When Patriarch Abune Antonios, head of the EOC, objected to the persecution, Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki arranged for him to be deposed, placed under house arrest and ultimately replaced by a government official.
It was the EOC that had reportedly urged the government to crack down on the other religions in the first place, resulting in making all other religious bodies outside of the four who registered in May 2002 illegal.
“Since then, many thousands of mostly evangelical Christians have suffered severely at the hands of a regime known for its human rights abuses, appalling prison conditions and widespread use of torture,” writes Elizabeth Kendal of the Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin. “Even teenagers are not spared and must complete military service in military training camps before they can graduate from school. Separated from their parents, religious persecution in these camps is systematic and severe.”
At its worst point, persecution in Eritrea resulted in an estimated 3,000 Christians incarcerated for their faith by the end of 2010, with most held in shipping containers in desert camps and others in underground cells, Kendal writes.
“The conditions are inhumane: Children and the elderly are amongst the prisoners sharing skin diseases, dysentery and other horrors in confined, unventilated spaces,” she notes. “Torture is routine. Amnesty International has reported on the tortures suffered by Christian prisoners. Several Christians have died in custody and others have perished in the desert trying to escape.”
In 2010, the U.S. Department of State estimated 50 percent of the Eritrean population was Muslim and about 48 percent Christian; the Pew Research Center, however, estimated at that time that nearly 63 percent were Christian and 36.2 percent Muslim.