Sixty Evangelical Christians Arrested in Eritrea

Sixty evangelical Christians were arrested during a New Year's celebration at the home of one of the leaders of the Rema Charismatic Church in the Eritrean capital of Asmara, news agencies reported today.

According to a Jan. 5 report from Compass Direct, police took into custody 36 women and 24 men—five of which are reported to be minors. One of the hosts, Letensae Oqbamichel was released on Jan. 4, however the rest remain in solitary confinement at the Mai-Serwa military camp north of Asmara.

Since the U.S. State Department designated Eritrea a "country of particular concern" (CPC) three months ago in its annual report on international religious freedom, Eritrean sources report a marked increase in surveillance.

In the report, the State Department said that the Eritrean government's “poor respect for religious freedom” for minority religious groups continued to decline during the period covered by the report. “The Government harassed, arrested, and detained members of Pentecostal and other independent evangelical groups reform movements,” it stated.

The Department also noted that there were numerous reports of physical torture and attempts at forced recantations.

Following a May 2002 government decree that all religious groups must register or cease all religious activities, the Government closed all religious facilities not belonging to the four sanctioned religions, the State Department reported. “These closures, the Government's refusal to authorize any registrations, and the restriction on holding religious meetings continued through the period covered by this report,” it added.

It is believed that more than four hundred evangelical Christians are presently imprisoned for their faith. Eritrea denies any religious persecution.

Jonah Fisher, a correspondent for the British Broadcasting Corporation, summarized the position of the Eritrean government after being expelled from Eritrea. "The government seems to have decided that anyone who does not follow a certain standard is an enemy of the people, is an enemy of the state,” Fisher stated. “It is afraid that people who consider their highest allegiance to be God, at some point may not be patriotic and follow the state's instructions."

When the State Department released it annual report last year on Sept. 15, it was the first time Eritrea was classified as a CPC—the title designated to nations engaged in violations of religious freedom deemed “particularly severe.”