A pastor in the small East African nation of Eritrea has been released after being falsely imprisoned for 11 years in one of the worst nations in the world when it comes to Christian persecution.
Voice of the Martyrs Australia has confirmed that Pastor Oqbamichel Haiminot, the senior pastor of Kale Hiwot (Word of Life) Church in Asmara, has finally been released from prison at the 5th Police Station.
Haiminot, a married father of three, was among over 60 evangelical Christians who were arrested in 2005 while participating in a wedding ceremony and were taken to the Sawa military center for "military punishment."
The global persecution advocacy organization reports that while the police gradually released several of the Christians, Haiminot and about five others were kept in detention as military officials tried to get them to recant their faith in Christ.
After refusing the request to deny Jesus, Haiminot was placed in solitary confinement. He was also subject to cruel punishments and inhumane conditions that include being forced to carry rocks up a mountain.
Although he was later released after he suffered a mental breakdown, Pastor Haiminot was re-arrested in 2007 and would stay locked up for over the next decade.
While it is unclear why Pastor Haiminot was finally released after years of advocacy from international rights groups, Voice of the Martyrs reports that Haiminot was in need of medical attention following his release.
"Many pastors [in Eritrea] have been arrested. Many Christians have been arrested," Todd Nettleton, chief of media relations for Voice of the Martyrs USA, said in a statement. "Typically, however, they're not held as long as Pastor Oqbamichel was... We don't know exactly why he was released at this time. Why not a year ago? Why not a year from now? We don't know what the logic behind that is — or if there is any logic behind it."
Haiminot gained international attention in 2003 after he became the first church leader in Eritrea to be imprisoned for religious activities.
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His release comes as Eritrea ranks as the sixth worst nation in the world when it comes to the persecution of Christians, according to Open Doors USA's 2018 World Watch List.
"The arrest, harassment and murder of Christians accused of being agents of the West is commonplace [in Eritrea]," Open Doors reports. "At the same time, Muslims, who make up roughly half of the population, are becoming more radicalized, resulting in increased vulnerability for Christians living in their vicinity."
According to Nettleton, Eritrea has gone through crackdown against the evangelical Christian community that started in 2002.
"The government actually closed all of the Evangelical churches in Eritrea," he said. "[They] basically called in the church leaders and said, 'Your churches can't meet anymore.' Every Christian activity after that became illegal."
The crackdown was renewed in 2017 and rights groups reported that over 200 Christians were arrested in house-to-house raids, according to the U.S. State Department's 2017 International Religious Freedom report.
"There were reports of deaths of members of minority religious groups imprisoned for their religious beliefs as well as physical mistreatment of persons in custody," the report states. "In October the government's enforcement of its ban on religious groups operating schools sparked demonstrations that led to the arrest of an Islamic school director and at least 40 other persons."
Last August, Fikadu Debesay, an evangelical mother of three, died while she was imprisoned at the Metkel Abiet camp. It is possible that some form of "mistreatment" could have contributed to her death.
A relative at her funeral told Morning Star News that she saw a scar on the Debesay's face and another scar on her hand that "could have been a sign of some mistreatment or intense sunburn that resulted to her untimely death."
"It has been very difficult consoling [her] children," the relative said. "They want to know what happened to their mother."
Two Pentecostal Christians died last March while on a hunger strike to protest their mistreatment. Their bodies were reported to have shown signs of sexual abuse.
Jehovah's Witnesses have also been arrested and died in Eritrean prison.
"Two Witnesses have recently died after their transfer to the Mai Serwa Prison. Habtemichael Tesfamariam died at age 76 on January 3, 2018, and Habtemichael Mekonen died at age 77 on March 6, 2018," JW.org reports. "Eritrean authorities imprisoned both men in 2008 without charges. A total of four Witnesses have now died while imprisoned in Eritrea."