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Eritrea Arrests Entire Families of Evangelicals
by Compass Direct

LOS ANGELES, March 23 (Compass) -- Eritrean authorities began raiding the private homes of evangelical Christians last week, arresting and jailing entire families caught praying and reading the Bible together.

For the first time, criminal charges and punishing fines were being ordered against these “outlawed” Christians, although no formal court hearings were reported.

In two separate arrests in the capital of Asmara, families (including children) from the Rema Charismatic Church were arrested and sent to prison.

In the first incident on March 17, a lay leader from the Rema Church identified only by his given name Kelete was arrested in his home at midnight with his wife, six children and his father-in-law.

Reportedly the nine believers were having family devotions together after the father-in-law arrived late in the evening. Without warning, the police raided the home and put them all under arrest. After spending the night at a nearby police station, they were transferred to the Adi Abeto prison outside Asmara.

The following evening, another Rema Church leader by the first name of Habeteab was arrested with his wife and five children and taken to Police Station No. 5 for the night. The entire family was sent to the same prison the following day.

In the March 18 arrest, the head of the home was charged with trying to “start a new religion” in Eritrea. Reportedly an official at the police station remarked that President Isaias Afwerki had ordered the police and military to arrest any individuals and groups not belonging to Eritrea’s four “official” religions (Orthodox, Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran and Muslim).

In another arrest confirmed on the evening of February 23, ten believers from the Full Gospel Church meeting in a home in the Aba Shwale district of Asmara were taken to jail. All remain in prison except for an elderly lady hosting the group, who was ordered to pay a fine of 500 Nakfa ($37, locally more than half a month’s salary) for holding an illegal meeting for worship in her home.

According to latest reports, of the 51 evangelicals from Asmara’s Hallelujah Church who were arrested in mid February, 46 remain under incommunicado arrest at either the Adi Abeto or Mai Serwa military prisons.

In a March 9 release, Amnesty International declared these detained church members to be “prisoners of conscience, who are being imprisoned for practicing their religion.”

“There are also concerns for their safety,” the release stated, “as those held in military custody are at risk of torture, which often includes the ‘helicopter’ method of being tied in a contorted position in the open air for a week or more, almost 24 hours a day.”

Earlier this month, President Afwerki warned in a public speech that some religious groups in Eritrea were being deluded by foreigners to “distract from the unity of the Eritrean people and distort the true meaning of religion.” In his remarks, delivered on March 5 during the ceremonial installation of Abune Antonios, the new patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Afwerki declared that such “futile efforts” would not be tolerated by his government.

The president’s comments were reported in detail in the Tigrinya edition of “Eritrea Profile,” a government weekly, although the English version of his speech was less complete.

All of Eritrea’s independent Protestant denominations were closed by government order in May 2002 and their congregations forbidden to worship, even in their homes. At present, at least 373 Protestant Christians are confirmed jailed and subjected to severe torture across the country for refusing to recant their faith, some for nearly two years.

On February 10, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom urged Secretary of State Colin Powell to include Eritrea for the first time on this year’s list of 11 countries designated by the U.S. State Department as “severe violators” of religious liberty. In its summation, the commission declared:

“The government of Eritrea in the past two years has cracked down on members of various religious groups, including the closure of all churches not belonging to officially recognized religious denominations, the arrest of participants at prayer meetings and other gatherings, and the imprisonment of armed forces members found in possession of certain religious literature. The State Department reports that over 300 persons are in jail because of their membership in unregistered religious groups.”

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