Eritrea Officials Arrest 10 Church Leaders; Christians Fear Increase in Persecution

Although an incident in which dissident Eritrean soldiers seized the country's information ministry earlier this week is now being downplayed as not a coup attempt, a heightened tension between political and faith groups remains. The Christian persecution watchdog group Open Doors says that at least 10 leaders of churches banned by the government have been arrested.

"The arrest of 10 church leaders in Eritrea could be the start of another wave of systematic persecution in this unpredictable, tiny country bordering the Red Sea," says Open Doors USA Media Relations Director Jerry Dykstra. "The Muslim and Christian population is almost split 50-50. But President Isaias Afewerkie has targeted independent Christians over the last decade. A government official once declared there are three enemies which need to be eradicated – HIV/AIDS, the regime in Ethiopia and independent Christians."

Over the past year, Open Doors reported that 31 Christians have died in prison camps.

"Once arrested, religious prisoners cannot appeal in court for official hearings because they are never officially charged and are not allowed to be represented by a lawyer," Dykstra explained. "The moment a prisoner is taken to court one is guilty even before he or she is charged because being a member of the underground church or attending religious meetings is an automatic crime. In other words, there is no justice for most independent Christians."

There have been several such campaigns in the past, but church leaders fear that this particular campaign is far more serious because it wants to "eradicate the underground church by targeting its key leaders around the country," according to Open Doors USA.

Since news of the renewed systematic arrests emerged, several church leaders have gone into hiding for a second time in only a few months. According to trusted Open Doors sources close to the events in Eritrea, church leaders have remained in good spirits despite these pressures.

For Christians in Eritrea, an eastern African country of 4 million, the past few months have been a somewhat of a roller-coaster ride. After the death of the Ethiopian Prime Minister in August last year, there was heightened tension in Eritrea. Christians testified that talk of renewed fighting between Eritrea and Ethiopia after the demise of one of their long-time rivals led to a very grim atmosphere. There were reports of the government circulating rifles to households in case war broke out. Some Christians described those months of uncertainty as their darkest night while praying earnestly for the light of a new dawn for their country.

These tensions were then followed in December by the news of the release of 31 Christian students kept at Sawa Military Training Centre since 2006. The group of students from Mai-Nefhi University included 14 females. They were arrested after refusing to participate against their conscience in cultural dancing during Independence Day celebrations.

The believers later testified that despite the difficulties they faced in the harsh prison conditions, they were never placed in a situation where they were forced to deny their faith. Some of the women were apparently enticed with release in exchange for sexual favors. None gave in, but remained strong in the faith, Open Doors USA reported.

Reports of the coup on Monday came amid speculations that President Afewerki's health is worsening. He has traveled abroad in the past to seek medical attention for a liver condition, but official information services refuted these speculations, insisting the 66-year-old was in good health.

Reports of the coup were met by mixed reactions. Some observers fear even more repressive measures by the government to keep society in check.

"Eritrea is ranked No. 10 on the Open Doors World Watch List which was released two weeks ago," Dykstra stated. "Eritrean Christians value our prayers as their circumstances remain uncertain."

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