Eritrea: persecution of Christians seen

As we noted in a related post on Egypt, Compass Direct News, which monitors global persecution of Christians, likely has its own evangelical axes to grind. But this still doesn’t smell very good. From a Feb. 22 report:

An Eritrean Christian died in prison last week, four and a half years after the Eritrean regime jailed him for worshipping in a banned Protestant church.

From the southern port city of Assab, local Christians confirmed the death of Magos Solomon Semere on Thursday (February 15) at the Adi-Nefase Military Confinement facility just outside Assab.

According to one source, Semere, 30, died “due to physical torture and persistent pneumonia, for which he was forbidden proper medical treatment.” He had reportedly endured a long period of severe illness in the months prior to his death.

A member of the Rema Church, Semere had first been jailed in the fall of 2001, when he was arrested for evangelizing and starting meetings for worship with six other Christians.

“The government gave hard-labor work punishment to believers for preaching the gospel and starting fellowships,” a Christian once jailed in Assab with Semere told Compass. “If they persisted, they would be kept imprisoned for ‘violating’ the government law.”

Semere had been released after 18 months in prison, only to be re-arrested three months later with a large group of Protestants caught worshipping together in July 2002.

When Semere became seriously ill, the source said, he was told to sign a statement renouncing his faith in order to get medical treatment. “He refused to do so,” his former jailmate said, “but three other people signed, and they got released.”

Semere had been engaged to marry shortly before his July 2002 arrest, but he was refused permission to see his fiancée again during his years in prison.

Despite all the government warnings delivered to Semere, his former fellow prisoner said, “Magos was determined to obey the Lord rather than men.”

Semere’s death is the third known killing of a Christian for his faith since last October. On October 17, 2006, Eritrean security police tortured two Christians to death, two days after arresting them for holding a religious service in a private home south of Asmara. Immanuel Andegergesh, 23, and Kibrom Firemichel, 30, died from torture wounds and severe dehydration in a military camp outside the town of Adi-Quala,

Crackdown in Assab

Assab, near the facility where Semere died, was targeted for one of the first major crackdowns against Protestant Christians by Eritrean security forces five years ago.

Three months later, in May 2002, the government categorically outlawed all churches not under the umbrella of the Orthodox, Catholic or Evangelical Lutheran denominations.

In the initial police raids in Assab on February 17, 2002, 133 congregants attending Sunday morning worship services at the city’s Full Gospel, Rema and Word of Life churches were arrested. Although all were released the next day, the 74 soldiers among them were rearrested two weeks later.

Refused contact with their families, the soldiers were punished with severe floggings and other forms of extreme torture for months, often kept in tiny dark cells. Most still remain jailed without charges, subjected to hard labor without any hope of release.

Since then, dozens more soldiers and other Christians from Pentecostal and charismatic churches caught worshipping in homes or small groups in and around Assab have been jailed. At least 130 Christians are believed to be imprisoned now in Assab’s military and civil prisons for refusing to sign documents recanting their faith.

Ten More Arrested

On Sunday (February 18) afternoon security police in Asmara arrested 10 Eritrean Christians who were visiting a private home in the Teravelo district of Asmara to congratulate a new bride and groom after their wedding.

Seven members of the Medhan Alem renewal movement, a Sunday School ministry within the Eritrea Orthodox Church, and three members of the Full Gospel Church were taken into custody. The newly married couple, who were just concluding their honeymoon, were not jailed.

The occasion was described by Christians in the capital as “a normal social visit of friends, not for the purpose of having worship or other church activities.” Six of the 10 new prisoners are women.

More than 2,000 Eritrean citizens are known to be jailed under severe mistreatment in police stations, military camps and prisons in at least 14 cities and towns solely for their religious beliefs.

Although most of those jailed are Christians, a number of Jehovah’s Witnesses and leaders of the Muslim community have also been imprisoned incommunicado for a year or more without judicial charges.

For the past 18 months, the regime of President Isaias Afwerki has extended its religious repression to interfere openly in the internal affairs of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, deposing its patriarch and taking over the church’s administrative and financial controls.

More from CDN, Dec. 14:

The government of Eritrea wrested financial and personnel control away from the Eritrean Orthodox Church last week, the day after security police jailed nine staff of a Christian aid agency.

In an ultimatum delivered to the church’s Asmara headquarters on December 5, the state demanded that all offerings and tithes collected through the Orthodox Church be deposited directly into a government account.

According to the unilateral order, effective immediately the monthly salaries of all Orthodox priests are to be paid out from this government-controlled fund of church income.

In a related policy, the government also announced new limits for the number of priests to be allowed to serve in each parish throughout the country.

The order specified that any “extra” priests beyond this quota who are now serving in any given parish would be required to report to the Wi’a Military Training Center, to perform their required military service.

The leadership of the Eritrean Orthodox Church has reportedly accepted the government demands, forwarding formal notice of the new regulations to every Orthodox parish in the country.

Ignoring church canons, the regime of President Isaias Afwerki removed the church’s ordained Patriarch Abune Antonios from office in August 2005 and placed him under house arrest. After installing a lay administrator, the government then put forward Abune Dioscoros as Antonios’ unofficial successor.

The Catholic Church of Eritrea reportedly continues to reject government demands to curtail their staff of priests or send them to military service.

Samaritan’s Purse Staff Arrested

At the same time, Asmara sources have confirmed that 10 days ago security officials arrested nine truck drivers working for Samaritan’s Purse, an international aid agency ordered to leave the country last month.

Eritrean authorities intercepted the men on December 4 as they were driving toward the Eritrean-Sudanese border, where Samaritan’s Purse had projects assisting the nomadic Beja tribe.

A U.S.-based evangelical Christian organization, Samaritan’s Purse is the 11th international aid group expelled from Eritrea this year. Officials in Asmara insist that these expulsions are simply protecting the country from the aid dependency rife across Africa.

The detained drivers, most of them known to be evangelical Christians, remain under arrest in Police Station No. 6 in Asmara.

Gospel Singer Released

Local evangelical Christians report that Gospel singer Helen Berhane, released in late October after more than two years in jail for refusing to recant her faith, is recuperating at her home in Asmara.

No reason was given for Berhane’s release, although she was transferred into emergency hospital care for several days earlier in October, shortly after undergoing a new round of beatings.

“She is extremely strong spiritually, and in high spirits,” one Christian who visited her last month declared. Still in a wheelchair, Berhane was severely injured in her right leg by beatings and bruisings inflicted by her captors.

A member of the Kidrane Mehrete Fellowship, Berhane was arrested on May 13, 2004, shortly after releasing a Christian music album that proved popular among Eritrean youth. Jailed at the Mai Serwa Military Camp, she was never charged or put on trial.

“She spent most of her detention in inhuman and degrading conditions inside a metal shipping container which was used as a prison cell,” Amnesty International wrote in a November 3 statement reporting her release. “The authorities reportedly tortured her many times to make her recant her faith.”

Although Berhane reportedly knew that the world had heard about her plight and that Christians were praying for her, local Christians told Compass that they assumed she had been ordered not to talk about her imprisonment after her release.

“Of course we’ve had no contact with her, because that’s extremely risky for somebody who’s just released from prison,” Horn of Africa researcher Dr. Martin Hill of Amnesty International told the British Broadcasting Corporation on November 4.

In an interview with Agence France-Presse the previous day, Eritrean Foreign Minister Ali Abdu denied any knowledge of Berhane’s case.

Instead, he criticized Amnesty International for its massive campaign on her behalf, saying, “Who is accountable for them, and who has given them the right to be the global police of this world?” Abdu said. “I am not saying it is a lie . . . but we do not even give them recognition,” the minister said.

Designated by the U.S. State Department as one of the worst violators of religious freedom in the world, the Eritrean government flatly denies the allegations.

In ongoing crackdowns since May 2002, Eritrea has banned all independent religious groups not under the umbrella of the government-sanctioned Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran or Muslim faiths. Serious restrictions against these four recognized religions have also escalated in the past 18 months.

More than 2,000 Eritrean citizens are known to be jailed solely for their religious beliefs, some for several years. Most are routinely subjected to torture and severe pressure to either recant or remain in prison.

We have previously noted the case of Helen Berhane. The irony is that Orthodox Christians also appear to be under attack in Eritrea’s arch-rival Ethiopia.

See our last posts on the Eritrea and the Horn of Africa.