LONDON – The Presbyterian Mehret Yesus Church in Asmara, Eritrea, was raided by government forces during a church service last week, according to sources close to human rights NGO Release Eritrea-UK.
Reports have indicated that around 80 people were detained, including the leader of the church, the Rev. Zecharias Abraham, who had also been serving as head of the Eritrean Evangelical Alliance since the May 2004 arrest of previous head Haile Naizgi.
At least three American citizens were also reportedly among those detained during the Apr. 29 raid.
The Mehret Yesus Church was one of the few churches allowed to function after the government in 2002 decreed the closure of all churches not belonging to the Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran denominations.
The recent raid follows a renewed government crackdown on Christian activity in Eritrea since the beginning of the year.
Sixty-eight Christians were detained in January alone and more recently the government announced the illegal appointment of a new Patriarch of the Orthodox Church following the unlawful dismissal of the consecrated Patriarch Abune Antonios, who remains under stringent house arrest.
In addition, Eritrean Christians abroad are reporting harassment from supporters of the Eritrean government. Threats sent recently by email told the recipient to "watch her back" as she would soon be attacked "on the streets of London" by members of the ruling party's youth wing.
In a statement commenting on the raid, Dr. Berhane Asmelash of Release Eritrea said: "This confirms the anti-religion and anti-Christianity stance of the Government of Eritrea. Presumably Mehret Yesus Church escaped being targeted for closure and arrests five years ago because it complied with government 'requirements,' which is the common pretext for the closure of the other churches, but this confirms that compliance has nothing to do with it whatsoever."
Tina Lambert, Christian Solidarity Worldwide's Advocacy Director, made the following statement: "The closure of a church that had previously been free to operate constitutes a further illustration of the Eritrean government's determination to control all aspects of society, including religious activity. Once again they have targeted one of the country's prominent Christian leaders, seemingly considering them a threat to their authority.
"It is also concerning that their threats are now reaching those who have supposedly found refuge in other countries," she added. "The international community must not continue to sit back while the Eritrean Government continues to disregard the rights of their people."