Eritrean Authorities Detain 131 Christian Children

More than 100 children aged between two and 18 were rounded up by a group of policemen as they were in their Christian classes, a UK-based human rights charity group reported Wednesday.

According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), 131 children were attending their classes at the Medhanie-Alem Orthodox Church the capital Asmara when a truck with the policemen arrived at about 9:30am on Feb. 19.

An eyewitness report at the scene, which was later verified by CSW, said the police put them in the truck and took them to the nearby Police Station Number 1 where they registered the children’s names and addresses. The children were kept at the police station from 10am to 1:30pm.

After 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.

“The arrest of this large group of children shows just how far this regime is prepared to go to persecute innocent Christians,” said Stuart Windsor, National Director of CSW. “It must have been a terrifying experience for them and we are only glad that the younger children are now free.”

According to reliable reports received by CSW, the Task Force has been set up by the Eritrean government dedicated to ridding the country of Pentecostal and Evangelical Christians by the end of 2005.

Over the past two weeks, the Compass Direct news agency has reported the arrest of 31 Eritrean Christians, making a total of 187 arrests for ‘illegal’ Christian activities since the beginning of the year. Meanwhile, some 400 people are currently in prison in Eritrea for their religious beliefs.

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.

Despite detailed inquiries filed over the past two years by the U.S. State Department, Amnesty International and several European governments, Eritrea categorically denies that any violations of religious freedom are taking place within the country.