70 evangelical, orthodox Christians released from prison in Eritrea

A Christian migrant from Eritrea shows a crucifix made of wood after she attended a Sunday mass at the makeshift church in 'The New Jungle' near Calais, France, August 2, 2015.
A Christian migrant from Eritrea shows a crucifix made of wood after she attended a Sunday mass at the makeshift church in "The New Jungle" near Calais, France, August 2, 2015. | (Photo: Reuters/Pascal Rossignol)

Seventy Christians from evangelical and orthodox backgrounds, including women, have been released from three prisons in Eritrea, some after being held without charge for more than a decade, according to the U.K.-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

In what could be an attempt to distract the attention of the international community from Eritrea’s role in the ongoing war in the Tigray region in neighboring Ethiopia, the Eritrean government last Monday released 21 female and 43 male prisoners from Mai Serwa and Adi Abeito prisons near the capital city of Asmara, CSW reported.

Some of the prisoners had been held without charge or trial for up to 12 years.

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On Jan. 27, six female prisoners, who had been in detention since last September, in Dekemhare, which is southeast of Asmara, were also released. The women were arrested for worshiping in public, a video of which was shared by some on social media, CSW said.

“CSW welcomes the release of these Christians in Eritrea, who were detained without charge or trial, and should never have been incarcerated,” CSW President Mervyn Thomas said. “However, this good news must not obscure the Eritrean regime’s continued complicity in egregious violations of human rights, both within its own borders and now in Tigray.”

Known as the Tigray War, the armed conflict has been ongoing since last November between the Tigray Regional Government (led by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front) and forces supportive of the Ethiopian government, which include military forces from Eritrea.

Unconfirmed reports have suggested that there have been a series of fatal assaults committed against citizens in Tigray, a predominantly-Christian northernmost region of Ethiopia.

Last month, witnesses spoke with The Associated Press, detailing killings, looting and other abuses committed by Eritrean soldiers in Tigray.

“They would kill you for trying, or even crying,” a 48-year-old woman named Zenebu who works as a healthcare worker and lives in Colorado but was trapped in Tigray for weeks while visiting her mother, was quoted as saying. She added that some Eritrean soldiers went from door-to-door, killing Tigrayan men and boys as young as 7 years old.

Zenebu detailed how she looked on as she saw Eritrean soldiers loot the belongings from residents’ homes. She said their pockets were filled with stolen jewelry and recalled some troops trying on looted clothing. “They were focused on trying to take everything of value,” she added, saying that they even stole diapers. She saw trucks being loaded with boxes of looted items that were to be delivered to places in Eritrea.

Estimates suggest that thousands of Eritrean soldiers have fought in the Tigray War on the side of the Ethiopian government. However, the Ethiopian government has denied the involvement of Eritrean soldiers in the conflict.

Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afewerki, is a member of the Eritrean Orthodox Church in Asmara — belonging to the largest among the only three Christian denominations allowed to function in the country.

However, 75-year-old Afewerki, the leader of the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice Party, has the reputation of being an alcoholic and a ruthless autocrat. Afewerki’s policy of restrictions is more about his fear that religion will mobilize people as a political force than religion per se.

Thomas called on the international community to press Eritrea for the “immediate and unconditional release of all those detained arbitrarily on account of their religion or belief.”

“We also call for urgent action to arrest the unfolding crisis in Tigray, including by imposing arms embargoes on the warring parties, and sanctions on the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea, who bear ultimate responsibility for human rights violations that are allegedly being committed with impunity by their respective forces.”

On Dec. 4, the government released 24 Jehovah’s Witnesses, including conscientious objectors Paulos Eyasu, Isaac Mogos and Negede Teklemariam, who had been held for 26 years.

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