Christians Condemn Persecution in Eritrea, Petition for Peace

A leader with the All Africa Conference of Church (AACC) has condemned persecution of Christians in Eritrea in reaction to recent reports documenting the arbitrary arrests and detention of the minority Christian groups in the country.

Rev. Dr. Kasonga wa Kasonga, who leads AACC's Theology and Mission Programs, said that the Christian church has always been a victim of persecution wherever it found itself as the minority, citing as examples the early church, the Church in the Soviet Union, China and other places.

“Christians have been persecuted in many places in the world,” said Kasonga, adding, “and some countries still continue to do so.”

However, recent reports reaching other nations outside the west African country have said that minority Christian groups in Eritrea are facing arbitrary arrests and detention, and that the Eritrean Church has accused their government of orchestrating the persecution.

"Many have been persecuted. They have been arrested at worship, weddings and other functions," a source at the Association of Evangelicals of Africa told Ecumenical News International in Nairobi.

Most recently, UK-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported Wednesday that a group of policemen rounded up 131 children aged between two and 18 on Feb. 19 as they were attending classes at the Medhanie-Alem Orthodox Church in the capital city of Asmara.

After being held for nearly four hours, the children aged two to 14 were released and told to come back on Monday with their parents. Meanwhile, the remaining group of 30 children was transferred to Police Stations Number 7 and Number 4 where they are still reportedly detained.

According to the Compass Direct news agency, 187 Eritrean believers have been arrested so far this year, including groups at prayer, intellectuals and professionals, whole wedding parties, and home Bible studies. Often children and the elderly are among those arrested.

The WEA (World Evangelical Alliance) Religious Liberty Commission, which serves to uphold the Church where it is suffering persecution, reported that believers in Eritrea "continue to suffer torture and incarceration in the most horrendous conditions.”

“The government is reported to have formed a Special Task Force to eradicate 'menfesawyan' ('spirituals' i.e., spiritual people) during 2005,” the Commission further stated.

Since May 2002, the Eritrean government has closed down the country’s independent Protestant churches, declaring their places of worship illegal and forbidding home gatherings. The banned groups include Pentecostal and charismatic congregations, as well as Presbyterian, Assemblies of God and Methodist-linked churches.

Sources say individuals and groups caught praying, studying the Bible or worshipping outside the umbrella of the country’s four recognized “official” religions (Orthodox Christianity, Catholicism, Lutheranism or Islam) continue to be jailed and tortured.

“Especially over the past 12 months, we have prayed constantly that the sanctioned, legal churches—Eritrean Orthodox, Eritrean Catholic, and Evangelical Lutheran—would stand in solidarity with the persecuted believers,” the WEA Commission stated Wednesday in its Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin. “So it is interesting that the previously comfortable relationship between the sanctioned churches and the government is becoming strained.”

According to Kasonga’s observations, Christians have always faced hostility triggered by ideological differences or faith adherence. The AACC leader singled out Nigeria and Sudan as some countries in Africa where religious conflicts have flared in recent times.

However, Kasonga said that religion should not be used to divide people but to foster harmony among individuals.

“The God we all worship does not want us to kill one another in his own name and we therefore should not use religion as a tool for manufacturing conflict but rather for peace making,” he said.

According to the AACC, the Church in Eritrea has appealed to the international community to put pressure on the Eritrean government to stop persecuting it.

So far, since the beginning of this year alone, over 200 Christians have been arrested in Eritrea, pushing the total number of those so far arrested to over 550.