The Eritrean government arrested 30 elderly, Christian women this past weekend, a Christian persecution watchdog reported Monday.
Security forces on Dec. 5 rounded up a group of mostly elderly women praying together at a house and took them to a police station in Asmara, the capital city, according to International Christian Concern.
The women are mostly members of the Faith Mission Church, an evangelical church with a Methodist background. The church has an over 50-year history in Eritrea but became a target of government crackdown after a law requiring churches to register with officials was adopted in 2002.
It is impossible for the Faith Mission Church to register, however, because the government only allows three Christian denominations to legally exist: the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran Evangelical Church of Eritrea.
"We condemn the arrest of the 30 women by Eritrean officials," said ICC's regional manager for Africa and South Asia, Jonathan Racho, in a statement. "We urge officials of Eritrea to release the detainees and all the imprisoned Christians in the country. We call upon Eritrea to stop violating the freedom of religion of its people."
In recent years, the Eritrean government has cracked down even on registered churches. The head of the Eritrean Orthodox Church has been under house arrest for years and there have been reports of raids on Christian functions, such as weddings.
Reports have also indicated that the torturing of Christians in prison is common. Christians are locked in outdoor metal shipping containers and have to endure unbearable heat, disease and mental distress. The containers are said to only be about 20 feet long and many of them contain 15 to 20 people.
Earlier this year, Compass News Direct reported that there have been several known cases of Christians dying at an Eritrean military camp.
Among the latest deaths is that of Yemane Kahasay Andom, 43, who died on July 23 at Mitire Military Confinement Center in northeastern Eritrea. He reportedly was tortured and suffered from a severe case of malaria that eventually led to his death.
"He was allegedly further weakened by continuous physical torture and solitary confinement in an underground cell the two weeks prior to his death for his refusal to sign a recantation form," said Open Doors, whose sources informed the ministry of Andom's death. "It is not clear what the contents of the recantation form were, but most Christians interpret the signing of such a form as the denouncement of their faith in Christ."
Also in the month of July, U.K.-based Release International ran a story about an Eritrean Christian who was imprisoned for five months.
"My hair and nails were long. My body color was yellow," said former prisoner Hzkias about his condition after he was released from his underground cell, according to the July edition of Release magazine. Hzkias, whose real name is not used for security reasons, also said he "looked like another creature."
Another former prisoner, identified as Essay by the magazine, was detained at a prison in Asmara for 11 months. Life in the prison, he explained, was "simply like living in an open toilet."
There are more than 2,800 Christians who are imprisoned because of their Christian faith in Eritrea, according to Open Doors. Eritrea is located in Northeast Africa.