By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife
ASMARA, ERITREA (BosNewsLife)– Eritrea released at least 69 Christian prisoners in recent weeks, including many detained in horrific circumstances for their faith “for up to 16 years without trial,” aid workers told BosNewsLife.
The latest freeing of Christians began September 4 when more than 20 male and female inmates could leave, said Barnabas Fund, a Christian aid, and advocacy group.
It added that authorities made “conditional releases” from the “notorious” Mai Serwa high-security military detention facility, near Asmara, the capital.
Many detainees are held there in underground cells and metal shipping containers, according to Christians and rights investigators familiar with the situation.
Barnabas Fund said the releases, linked to coronavirus pandemic policies, are done on severe bail conditions. ”Bail securities are lodged, usually in the form of property deeds, with guarantors held liable for the detainees’ future actions.”
In published remarks, Eritrean Christian leader Berhane Asmelash noted that the developments raise hope for many more releases “among 300 or more” innocent Christians. “There is no crime being done apart from believing in God,” he explained.
He stressed that those still held include adults and children, who remain incarcerated in the military jail, often in solitary confinement and metal shipping containers.
The Christian leader stressed that most of the prisoners released had been in long term detention for at least a decade. Some were “languishing” in the maximum-security prison without trial for as much as 16 years, Asmelash recalled.
Asmelash, a former prisoner and victim of torture now living in Europe, complained that no pastors or other senior Christian leaders were among those released. He urged for prayer for their safety and release.
“Christianity is not a crime. There is no crime being done apart from believing in God,” Asmelash added in a statement provided by Barnabas Fund. “I am very glad the government is taking this positive action …. We expect more to be released.”
He also called it an answer to prayer. “Thousands of Christians have been praying for this,” the Christian added.
It comes amid international pressure on Eritrea’s autocratic President Isaias Afwerki, who has ruled the Horn of Africa nation since it gained independence in 1993.
Afwerki keeps tight control over religion. In 2002, his government outlawed every religion except Sunni Islam and the Eritrean Orthodox, Roman Catholicism, and Lutheran Church denominations.
The authorities closed many Evangelical and Pentecostal churches and kept the patriarch of the Orthodox Church under house arrest since January 2007.
Registered churches also come under tight government control. And Christians who worship in unregistered churches are regarded as enemies of the state.
Eritrea, a one-party, highly militarized society, has been described by critics as the “North Korea of Africa.” Some 12 percent of the 6-million population has fled the country, according to the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR.
AFRICA’S NORTH KOREA
“Eritrea is like a giant prison… like North Korea, but in Africa,” said Asmelash earlier. The government has consistently denied wrongdoing and claims people are free to worship within the laws of the land.
Asmelash cautioned that life would not be easy for those who are released. “Many have been in prison for a long time. The circumstances they are being released into are very changed, “ Asmelash warned. “Some will return to friends and extended family, but many will be homeless with nowhere to go. There is no [state] help in Eritrea.”
He urged prayers for those released. “People have souls and minds that will need healing. They need to rehabilitate. We need to pray that they will recover from their trauma.”
In 2019, more than 330 Christians were detained between May and August, according to aid workers.
Among them were 141 Christians – including 104 women and 14 children – detained on May 10 as they gathered at a house church meeting in Asmara, Barnabas Fund confirmed.
“Eritrea remains one of the worst countries in the world for Christian persecution,” the group told Worthy News. It is a nation “where believers of certain denominations are subject to arbitrary arrest and detention without trial,” it added.