Another 35 Christians have been arrested in Eritrea for conducting prayer meetings.
The latest arrests dash hopes of a change of heart towards Christians in that country, where many have been imprisoned for their faith since Eritrea closed most of its churches in 2002.
The arrests took place last week, when the army raided a prayer meeting held by 23 women in the capital Asmara. Another 12 were arrested in Assab, some 660 miles south east of Asmara, near the border with Djibouti.
The women in the capital were praying in Mai Chehot, close to the army barracks. Soldiers took them to Mai Sarawa prison.
The 12 arrested in Assab were also caught holding a prayer meeting in a house, and were taken to a prison nearby. Many Christians in Eritrea have been arrested without charge and jailed indefinitely.
In Eritrea, citizens have a duty to report anything untoward happening in their community. This can turn ordinary neighbours into spies. In some cases their own family members have reported Christians.
With these latest arrests, it is possible the Christians gave themselves away by the numbers turning up to pray or the sound of their singing.
In the past six months 171 Christians arrested for their faith have been set free. ‘But this latest wave of arrests is proof positive there has been no change in the repressive government policy towards religious freedom,’ says Dr Berhane Asmelash, a partner of Release International, which supports persecuted Christians worldwide.
Dr Asmelash continues: ‘Unless there is a change of policy these will continue to be dangerous times for Christians in Eritrea, where many are suffering for their faith.’
Release is particularly concerned for the women arrested at Assab, on the Red Sea, who have been taken to prison there. Conditions in the jail are known to be harsh. Assab prison is in a remote port area which is now reserved for military use.
Until recently, Assab prison held many Christians who had been detained indefinitely. Some had been behind bars for up to 15 years. Many have been released over the past six months.
There are now an estimated 165 Christian prisoners in state jails in Eritrea. Many army conscripts have also been locked up for practising their faith. That number could be as high as 150, believe Release International partners.
‘Eritrea has been likened to the North Korea of Africa,’ says Release International CEO Paul Robinson. ‘Release continues to press the government to release its prisoners of faith – every one of them. We urge Eritrea to repeal its restrictive religious laws and grant full freedom of faith to its citizens.’
Eritrea outlawed most religions in 2002, when the government banned every faith other than Orthodox, Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran and Sunni Islam.
Many Christians who fled to escape persecution in Eritrea are now being caught up in the growing conflict in neighbouring Ethiopia, where Release International is providing support. Eritrean forces have joined forces with their neighbour against Tigrinya rebels.
Observers suggest a reason for the recent prisoner releases was to curry favour with the Ethiopian Prime Minister who is a Christian. Eritrea has recently announced it will withdraw its troops from the conflict. Its soldiers have been accused of attacking churches and systematic rape.
Through its international network of missions, Release International is active in some 25 countries around the world, supporting pastors, Christian prisoners and their families; supplying Christian literature and Bibles, and working for justice.