CSW Responds to Ongoing Religious Persecution in Eritrea

A UK-based human rights charity group is calling for the international community to continue to put pressure on the Eritrean government to operate in accordance with international human rights standards. Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which works on behalf of those persecuted for their Christian beliefs, issued a statement on Nov. 29, after last week’s arrest of Dr Futsum Gebrenegus, Dr Tekeleab, and the Reverend Gebremebhin—Orthodox priests involved in the renewal movement within the Orthodox Church.

“The arrest of these three Orthodox priests shows yet again that the Eritrean authorities have little or no respect for religious freedom,” stated Stuart Windsor, National Director of Christian Solidarity Worldwide. “The appalling incident and subsequent cover-up at Abi Abeito shows their disregard for human rights.”

“We call on the international community to continue to put pressure on the Eritrean government to treat religious minorities and all its citizens in accordance with international human rights standards,” Windsor added.

In their statement, CSW reported that Eritrean security forces have raided dozens of homes and have arrested hundreds of Christians, including young children, simply for having a Bible or attending a Christian meeting. There are reported to be an estimated 400 Christians in prison, many having served more than two years.

In May 2004, three senior Church leaders were arrested—the Reverend Haile Naizge, chairman of the Full Gospel Church, Dr. Kuflu Gebremeskel, chairman of the Eritrean Evangelical Alliance and Pastor Tesfatsion Hagos of the Rhema Evangelical Church in Asmara. Though the three pastors were initially held in police cells in the Eritrean capital, it was reported in August that all three had been transferred from these cells to an unknown location.

The leaders are now thought to be held incommunicado in Wengel Mermera investigation center, the an inner prison in Asmara where many of Eritrea’s prominent political prisoners are also believed to be held.

“In terms of religious liberties, Eritrea is the third most repressive country in Africa after Somalia and Sudan,” CSW said.

The group also stated that Eritrea’s government has carried out other serious human rights abuses. “Since 1998 the government has regularly conducted arbitrary mass round ups of people within the age of enlistment in order to find ‘draft dodgers,’” CSW reported.

In the most recent incident on Nov. 4, which ended in tragedy, the government reportedly rounded up thousands of people under the age of 50 indiscriminately and detained them in an army camp just outside the capital Asmara. A prison wall then either fell or was pushed over by some of the prisoners, killing five guards as it fell. The remaining guards then proceeded to fire at the crowd, killing between 20 and 50 people and injuring scores more.

According to one report the authorities hastily buried some of the dead while the injured were hospitalized pending re-arrest. The government has attempted to dismiss reports on the incident as ‘overblown’, and has insisted on describing the victims of the round up as ‘gangsters’ and draft dodgers.

Nevertheless according to reports, the situation in the country remains extremely tense, reported CSW. In the aftermath of this incident the European Parliament passed a resolution condemning human rights abuses in Eritrea. The resolution demanded a full investigation into the incident and expressed anxiety regarding the well being of alleged draft dodgers who continue to be held in detention. It also called on Eritrea to abide by international human rights conventions, and to immediately release the 11 former members of the ruling party imprisoned without charge since September 2001.

In a response from Yemane Gebremeskel, President Isaias Afeworki's Chief of Staff, the Eritrean government dismissed the resolution as 'extremely inappropriate’. CSW reports that Gebremeskel went on to say that only two people had died during the incident and to add that the resolution would 'only reduce the influence of the European Parliament'.