LOS ANGELES, January 14 (Compass) -- Eritrean authorities
extended their crackdown on organized religion this past week to
Roman Catholic citizens, arresting and jailing 25 members of the
Catholic Church during a wedding rehearsal in Asmara.
The victimized bride and groom had met with their wedding party
on Sunday morning, January 9, to rehearse their planned ceremony two
weeks before the wedding. But police inexplicably entered the
building, a facility rented by the Tebadasso renewal group of the
Catholic Church, and stopped the proceedings.
The entire group present, including the wedding couple, was
jailed at Asmara’s Police Station No. 1, where they remained under
arrest as of yesterday.
This arrest marked the first such reported crackdown on members
of Eritrea’s Catholic community, who enjoy “official” recognition by
the government, along with Orthodox and Lutheran Christians, and
In a televised speech from Rome the day after the Asmara arrests,
Pope John Paul II listed religious liberty as one of four challenges
facing the world in 2005. “It is necessary that religious freedom be
everywhere provided, with an effective constitutional guarantee,”
the Catholic pontiff said.
The same Sunday morning, security police swooped down on a
wedding ceremony being held in Barentu, a town in western Eritrea,
arresting the 67 evangelical Christians present. Participants had
been escorting the bride to the wedding venue when police intervened
and took them all to prison, including the wedding couple.
Three clergymen among the prisoners were identified as pastors
Oqbamichel and Simon from the Kale Hiwot Church, and Hagos Tuomai
from the Full Gospel Church.
Reportedly the 67 prisoners were to be taken to the Sawa Military
Training Center for “military punishment.”
Local sources said it was “very disturbing” that a number of
elderly people and young children were among those jailed, and asked
Christians around the world to “pray and protest.”
Still a third arrest was reported on January 9 in the Beleza
district of northern Asmara, where four men meeting for morning
prayer were arrested by the police. All members of the Kale Hiwot
Church, the men are currently being held under military confinement
in the Mai-Serwa camp north of Asmara.
Meanwhile, Compass has confirmed that 25 of the 60 Rema
Charismatic Church members arrested at a New Year’s Eve celebration
in Asmara have been released after signing a pledge not to
participate in such meetings again. The pastor’s wife had previously
been set free on January 4, leaving her husband, Habteab Oqbamichel,
and 33 other Rema believers still in custody at Mai-Serwa.
Curiously, when Eritrean Christians celebrated Christmas on
January 7 this year, the annual Christmas message always broadcast
by the Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church was not aired on
The unexplained lapse is attributed to growing tensions between
the government and Patriarch Abune Antonios, who has reportedly
accused government authorities of “interfering” in the religious
affairs of his church. The patriarch recently voiced his objections
to the arrest of senior members of the Medani Alem Fellowship, a
religious institution within the Coptic Orthodox Church.
Traditionally, half of Eritrea’s population is Christian and the
other half is Sunni Muslim. The majority of Christians belong to the
traditional Orthodox Church founded in the region in the 4th
century, with Catholics and Protestants representing five and two
percent, respectively, of the national population.
Since May 2002, the government of Eritrea has targeted the
nation’s independent Protestant churches, closing down their places
of worship and arresting and torturing hundreds of their members for
involvement in “illegal religions.”
Three leading Protestant pastors have been held incommunicado
under arrest since May 2004 by the government, and hundreds of
evangelical soldiers remain imprisoned for refusing to recant their
Despite being named last fall by the U.S. State Department as a
“country of particular concern” for its severe violations of
religious liberty, Eritrea denies that any religious persecution is