More than two dozen Pentecostal Christians were reportedly arrested in recent days as the crackdown against nondenominational Christianity in the northeast African nation of Eritrea continues.
Berhane Asmelash of Release Eritrea told BBC that over 30 Christians were rounded up and detained while praying in three different locations in the nation’s capital of Asmara.
The BBC report follows reports from human rights watchdogs earlier in the month that stated that 141 Christians were arrested on May 10 in the Mai Temenai area of Asmara. They were detained after gathering for a private meeting ahead of the country’s Independence Day, according to nonprofit Release International.
Open Doors USA noted that of those arrested were 104 adult females, 23 men, and 14 minors.
The Eritrean government, which has been run by President Isaias Afwerki since the country’s independence from Ethiopia in 1993, only recognizes four religious affiliations — Orthodox Christianity, Sunni Islami, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea and the Catholic Church.
Afwerki is reportedly a member of the Orthodox church.
According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the Eritrean government highly regulates religious practice to the extent that there is “little to no freedom of religion or belief for people outside the four officially recognized faith communities.”
But even the officially recognized religious bodies in the country have suffered from government interference as the government demands full control of religious organizations and their entities that include schools, clinics, and orphanages, reports the Catholic nonprofit news website Zenit.
Eritrea, which has a population that is about half Christian and half Muslim, has been recognized by the U.S. State Department as a “country of particular concern” for egregious violations of religious freedom since 2004.
According to Release International, about one out of 12 Eritreans has fled the country and gone to other African nations or Italy.
In its 2019 annual report, USCIRF said that Eritreans are “regularly arrested and detained for their religious beliefs and practices” while not being afforded due process under the law.
“Members of approved religions are regularly arrested for protesting government interference in their activities, and members of unregistered religious groups can be arrested if found to be observing the illegal religion,” the USCIRF report reads. “In March 2018, the honorary president of the Al Diaa Islamic School in Asmara died in detention, having been arrested and detained in 2017 along with other colleagues for opposing government interference in the school.”
Even in prison, USCIRF warned, inmates are banned from praying aloud, preaching and having religious books.
“Arrested individuals have reported being asked to sign documents certifying that they renounce their faith or that they join or return to the Eritrean Orthodox Church, and if they do not, face transfer to worse conditions,” according to the report.
A United Nations inquiry from 2016 found that the “use of torture by Eritrean officials has been, and remains, both extensive and methodical in civilian and military detention centers.”
Last year, authorities in Eritrea released Pastor Oqbamichel Haiminot, the senior pastor of Kale Hiwot (Word of Life) Church in Asmara after he spent over 11 years in prison. Haiminot was among 60 evangelical Christians arrested in 2005 during a wedding ceremony and taken to Sawa military center.
Eritrea is ranked as the seventh worse country in the world when it comes to Christian persecution on Open Doors USA’s 2019 World Watch List.
“During the 2019 World Watch List reporting period, government security forces conducted many house-to-house raids and imprisoned hundreds of Christians in inhumane conditions, including small shipping containers in scorching heat,” an Open Doors factsheet reads. “Protestants, in particular, face serious problems in accessing community resources, especially social services provided by the State.”
Christians from nontraditional church groups, such as evangelicals, face the “harshest” forms of Christian persecution, Open Doors reports. Also converts from a Muslim background and cross-denominational converts from Orthodox backgrounds “encounter harsh mistreatment from their families and communities.”