Middle East and North Africa

Eritrean women Imprisoned for going to non-sanctioned churches

An Eritrean government crackdown on Christians has detained about 170 Christians in raids in the capital Asmara and seven other towns, according to religious liberty group, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).

Thirty-three Christian Eritrean women are in the notoriously harsh Nakura, prison island in the Dahlak Archipelago in the Red Sea, created in the late 19th Century by Italian colonialists to crush political dissent amidst other secret prisons.

 The Eritrean military had embarked on a series of raids on what it called non-sanctioned churches between May and June, arresting Christians in such churches. In 2002, the Eritrean government outlawed all religious practices and churches not affiliated with the Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran and Orthodox Christian denominations or Sunni Islam.

Since then Christians have been incarcerated in harsh conditions in remote desert camps and according to reports there have been deaths in these camps.  Dr Berhane Asmelash, Release International partner, said that Eritrean security goes door-to-door, arresting Christians in a new wave of worsening persecution against the Church.

“People used to be arrested for conducting unauthorized meetings, such as Bible studies or prayers. But this is new for us when they go from house to house. They are arresting people for their beliefs, not for their actions,” Asmelash said. “Children who are too young to be separated from their mother’s face being brought up in jail unless their parents are released. They include a two-month old baby.”

Many of the Christians detained are young mothers whose husbands have been conscripted into the Army or are away working for a living elsewhere. The arrests have therefore left 50 children without parental care.

This latest phase has been described to CSW as “unprecedented in its intensity and rough treatment. Christians across the country have taken to their knees in expectation of God’s faithfulness and grace in these difficult times and call on others who read of their plight to join them in prayers.”

A United Nations Commission of Inquiry on human rights in Eritrea (COIE) report, June 2016,  said there ewere “reasonable grounds to believe” that crimes against humanity have been committed by state officials in a “widespread and systematic manner” since 1991, including the crime of persecution.

The Human Rights Council (HRC) in a 23 June resolution noted “with grave concern the continued use by the government of Eritrea of arbitrary arrest and detention, including incommunicado detention in extremely harsh and life-threatening conditions, of persons suspected of evasion of national service, attempting to flee the country or unable to produce identity documents, exercising the right to freedom of religion, or freedom of opinion and expression.”

Mervyn Thomas, CSW’s Chief Executive, said, “This spike in arrests provides a clear illustration that the persecution of unrecognised faith groups in Eritrea is continuing. Moreover, the detention of these women, many of whom are young mothers, in a notoriously harsh facility simply on account of their religion or belief, is unwarranted, deplorable and in violation of Eritrea’s obligations under international law.”

“It is time to prioritise accountability for human rights violations; thus we reiterate our call for the international community to facilitate justice for victims of atrocity crimes, and to maintain pressure on the Eritrean regime until every prisoner of conscience is freed without precondition,” he declared.