Eritrea

Eritrea Arrests, Conscripts More Protestant Christians
Asmara Government Denies Any Religious Persecution

LOS ANGELES, May 5 (Compass) -- More arrests along
with forced conscriptions targeting Eritrea's independent
Protestant Christians have been reported during the past
two weeks, despite a blanket denial by Asmara officials on
May 1 that any religious persecution exists in the East
Africa nation.

In an incident in the capital city over Orthodox Easter
weekend, two members of the government-recognized
Evangelical Lutheran Church were arrested and held in
detention for three days.

Following a tradition long observed on the eve of Easter by
Eritrea's Lutheran Christians, a group of young church
members took a guitar onto the streets of central Asmara on
Saturday night, April 26, to sing hymns about Christ's
resurrection.

But as they passed a local bar about 11:30 p.m., they were
confronted by an irate security officer who came out of the
bar. The policeman reportedly told the singers that such
activities were not allowed for members of "closed"
churches. When he learned they were in fact members of
the legal Lutheran Church, the officer accused the group of
"misusing" the freedoms granted to their church.

Most of the group fled, but two young men who stood their
ground were arrested by the policeman and taken to the
city's No. 2 Police Station. The two Lutherans were not
charged with any crime, and no reason was given for their
detention. Both 26 years old, the men were held until the
afternoon of April 29, when they were released with a
"serious warning" to not repeat this Easter tradition again.

Taking a more severe tactic last week, military police
invaded work places and private homes to arrest 56
members of independent Pentecostal churches in the
northern-most province of Sahel. The military swoop,
which occurred during normal working hours on April 29,
was justified as "conscription for military service."

But according to fellow church members of the forced
conscripts, most of the 16 women and 40 men picked up
had already completed their mandatory military service.
Many of those conscripted were teachers, nurses and
professionals. They have not been seen since.

The conscriptions targeted 20 members of the Full Gospel
Church and 36 from the Kale Hiwot Church living in Nakfa
and Afabet, small towns made famous by historic battles
during the Eritrean war of resistance.

Although security police told relatives that the conscripts
had been taken to the Sawa Military Training Center,
family members have so far been unable to confirm their
whereabouts.

"The fact that all of them are known as Protestant believers
is very alarming," a local source said. "We are very
concerned about their safety."

Another 74 Eritrean soldiers have been incarcerated in the
Assab military prison for more than a year, subjected to
severe beatings, threats and abuse for refusing to deny their
Pentecostal beliefs and return to the Orthodox Church.
Thirteen of them are women, and 16 are married men with
families. All have been refused any contact with relatives
or friends. Last month there were unconfirmed reports that
another three Protestant soldiers had been arrested and sent
to the Assab prison.

Eritrea's 12 independent Pentecostal and charismatic
churches representing about 20,000 believers have been
targeted in a harsh government crackdown over the past
three months. A total of 254 of their members have been
jailed, beaten and threatened since the security police
attacks began in early February.

The Asmara government has refused since last May to
grant official status to any group apart from the four
"recognized" religions: Orthodox Christian, Muslim,
Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran. All other congregations
were ordered to stop meeting for worship and close their
buildings.

But in a statement issued May 1 to outline what it called the
"basic facts" of religious freedom in Eritrea, the Asmara
government declared, "No groups or persons are persecuted
in Eritrea for their beliefs or religion."

Insisting that "all religions are equal, and no religion is
more equal than others," the statement added, "People are
free to worship according to their wish, or to refrain from
worshipping or practicing religion."

According to separate sources, 160 members of the
Jehovah's Witnesses, a religious sect which declines to be
labeled Christian, were arrested in Asmara on April 16.
Some 120 of the detainees, including pregnant women and
children, were kept under arrest for two days and then
released. Most of the remaining 40 have since been
released, except for "a handful of elders" still believed to
be under arrest.

Jehovah's Witnesses have been subjected to especially
harsh treatment in Eritrea because of their conscientious
objector stance toward military service.

According to the U.S. State Department's latest report on
human rights in Eritrea, "Arbitrary arrests and detentions
continued to be problems," with unknown numbers of
people jailed without charges and some being held
incommunicado.

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