LOS ANGELES, January 5 (Compass) -- Sixty members of the
Rema Charismatic Church in the Eritrean capital of Asmara have been
arrested and jailed for holding a New Year’s Eve celebration in the
home of one of their church leaders.
On the night of December 31, police officials took into custody
the hosts of the gathering, Habteab Oqbamichel and his wife
Letensae, along with another 23 men and 35 women. According to
eyewitnesses of the arrests, at least five of the young men detained
When police arrived on Friday evening, they halted the
celebration, taking everyone present to Asmara’s Police Station No.
5. The following day, January 1, the women were all transferred to
Mai-Serwa, a military camp just north of Asmara, where they were put
into solitary confinement.
Although the men were thought to have been taken to a separate,
unknown location, sources confirmed today that the men are currently
incarcerated at Mai-Serwa, as well. Yesterday Letensae Oqbamichel
was released, reportedly the only one of the 60 prisoners set free
Well-known Christian singer Helen Berhane has been jailed alone
in a metal shipping container at this same military center since
last May for refusing to deny her evangelical faith or sign a
promise to stop participating in local Protestant activities.
Prisoners held in these containers at Mai-Serwa “where conditions
are harsh and infectious diseases such as diarrhea are common” are
never charged with any crime or brought to trial, according to an
Amnesty International report issued November 26.
Last weekend’s jailing was Habteab Oqbamichel’s third arrest over
what the Eritrean government calls “illegal religious activities.”
Last March, the Oqbamichel couple had been arrested at their home
and sent to prison along with their five children. Police told
Habteab Oqbamichel that Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki had
ordered them to arrest anyone not belonging to the four “official”
religions recognized by the government: Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran
Accused with trying to “start a new religion,” Oqbamichel and his
family were later released. He had previously been arrested and
beaten with several dozen other Rema Church members caught holding
prayer meetings in their homes in May 2003.
Evangelical Christians incarcerated for their faith have suffered
severe physical abuse during repeated arrests and harassments since
May 2002, when the government closed all their church premises and
outlawed worship even in their homes. The banned groups include
Pentecostal and charismatic congregations, as well as Adventist,
Presbyterian, Assemblies of God and Methodist-linked churches.
Over the past three months, pastors and church members of these
independent Protestant denominations have experienced particularly
heavy surveillance by police authorities.
“There are cars parked outside our homes and offices, following
us to the post office or wherever we go,” one commented. Some have
also been approached by individuals apparently sent to spy on them,
claiming they want to join their secret meetings for worship. “We
are all being watched.”
The stiffer monitoring pattern began shortly after September 15,
when the U.S. State Department for the first time named Eritrea as a
“country of particular concern” for its severe religious freedom
The Eritrean Foreign Ministry reacted within hours to the State
Department accusations, declaring it was not surprised because “it
has been no secret that the CIA and its operatives have been long
engaged in fabricating defamatory statements.” The Asmara government
flatly denies that any religious persecution exists in the country.
Upwards of 400 evangelicals are believed to be currently under
arrest for their faith, including three prominent pastors jailed
since last May. There are also scores of young soldiers doing
compulsory military service who have been jailed for praying,
reading the Bible or worshipping in groups.
Eritrean laws prohibit the detention of any citizen without
charges for more than 30 days.
According to BBC correspondent Jonah Fisher, expelled in
September after 18 months as an international reporter in Asmara,
the Eritrean government seems to be “afraid that people who consider
their highest allegiance to be [to] God, at some point may not be
patriotic and follow the state’s instructions.”
President Isaias and his government’s leaders were
Marxist-oriented freedom fighters who led Eritrea’s 31-year war for
independence, finally won in 1993. But over the past three years,
the regime has jailed thousands of political dissidents, including
prominent members of parliament and journalists as well as minority