LOS ANGELES, February 23 (Compass) -- Police swooped down
on a group of Protestant Christians worshiping in secret in the
Eritrean capital of Asmara on Sunday, February 16, hauling off to
jail the 51 evangelicals present.
Pastor Mengse Tweldemedhane of the Hallelujah Church was arrested
along with his congregation in the Edaga Hamuse district of Asmara
at 3:30 Sunday afternoon. One individual from the Philadelphia
Church and two members of the Full Gospel Church were also among the
The 34 men and 17 women were held under arrest at the Adi-Abyto
military camp until February 18, when Pastor Tweldemedhane was
separated from the group and locked into an underground cell. He
remains under severe pressure to renounce his Protestant beliefs and
return to the Eritrean Orthodox Church.
Except for four elderly women who were apparently spared from
further incarceration, the remaining prisoners were all transferred
that same day to the Sawa Military Training Center.
It was confirmed to Compass today that the 46 Christians taken to
Sawa are being detained in metal shipping containers and pressured
to renounce their faith. Five of them, two women and three men, are
reportedly “very ill” and being refused any medical treatment.
Local authorities have reportedly concluded that the pastor and
23 of his imprisoned church members have not done their compulsory
The latest arrests bring to 347 the total number of Protestant
Christians known to be jailed in at least nine locations across
Eritrea for attending “illegal” worship services, possessing Bibles
or witnessing about their faith. Some of them, including a number of
soldiers, have been in prison for nearly two years.
All 12 of Eritrea’s independent Protestant denominations were
closed in May 2002 by the government, which has refused ever since
to grant these churches official registration status. Even small
house church meetings have been outlawed. Pastors and church members
caught meeting illegally have been subjected to cruel torture and
demeaning conditions in an attempt to force them to recant their
The only authorized religions recognized by the state are the
Eritrean Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran and Muslim
In a report released December 18, the U.S. State Department cited
a mounting number of religious freedom abuses documented in Eritrea
during 2003. Although flatly rejecting the report, spokesman Yemane
Gebremeskel from the president’s office told Reuters news agency
that only four religious groups had existed historically in Eritrea.
In a subsequent press release issued January 6 by the Eritrean
Embassy in Washington, D.C., the text claimed that Eritrea’s
population included “approximately 14 different religious groups …
tolerant of one another’s practices.”