BosNewsLife Africa Service
ASMARA, ERITREA (BosNewsLife)– Several churches in Eritrea were without their leaders or other believers Sunday, December 21, as a government-backed campaign of mass arrests reached the capital Asmara amid fears several detainees died of mistreatment, Christians said.
Over 100 men, women and children from a variety of Christian denominations were jailed in recent weeks, confirmed Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) a major rights group investigating the situation.
The wave of house to house arrests reportedly began late November in the areas of Keren, Eilabered, Hagaz, Adi Tekelezan, and Deki Zeru, followed by further raids in Dekemhare, Adi Quala, Areza and Mendefera before the campaign reached Asmara, December 12.
Christians were reportedly transferred to a military facility and fellow believers said they were severely mistreated. “Local sources indicate that an unspecified number may have died after being denied medical attention subsequent to this mistreatment,” CSW noted. Eritrean officials have denied religious persecution, but say they want to protect the country against sects and dangerous outside influences.
The latest apparent crackdown comes amid reports of food shortages and growing dissent within Eritrea’s army as Major General Philipos Woldeyohannes, a close ally of President Isaias Afewerki, reportedly escaped an assassination attempt on December 4.
“Elsewhere, a visit to Europe by a delegation headed by the Orthodox Church’s government-imposed administrator Yoftahe Dimetros and the largely unrecognized substitute patriarch Bishop Dioscoros, is reportedly proving less successful than anticipated,” CSW added.
In Italy, they apparently failed to gain an audience with the Catholic hierarchy, allegedly on grounds that there had been “no prior communications with Patriarch Antonios concerning the visit.” The delegation was later denied entry into Milan’s Kidist Mariam Eritrean Orthodox Church by church leaders, who said they did not represent the official church, CSW said.
CSW’s Advocacy Director, Tina Lambert, said in a statement obtained by BosNewsLife that the tensions and the “resumption of mass arrests” are “deeply troubling.” She said CSW is especially concerned about “reports indicating that some detainees may even have died from injures” sustained during mistreatment. “Our thoughts and prayers are with those who may now be grieving for friends and family members,” Lambert explained.
Eritrean authorities began persecuting Christians in May 2002 after controversial legislation only recognized the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church and Lutheran Church as “official denominations”, although church leaders there have also reported tensions, rights groups said.
At least 2,000 Eritrean Christians are held without charges in local prisons of military camps, including in shipping containers, to pressure them to abandon their faith in Christ, according to churches and independent investigators.
CSW said it has urged the international community “to remind the Eritrean government of its international and constitutional obligations with regard to freedom of religion and the humane treatment of prisoners, and to urge the regime to permit all detainees to have unhindered access to immediate family members, medical treatment, and legal representation.” (With reporting by BosNewsLife’s Chief International Correspondent Stefan J. Bos).