Thursday, May 8, 2003

Eritrea: persecution escalates amid government denials.

Date: Thursday 8 May 2003
Subj: Eritrea: persecution escalates amid government denials.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty E-mail Conference
From: Elizabeth Kendal, Conference Moderator


A 9 April 03 report from Compass Direct broke the news of shocking persecution of Protestants in Eritrea over recent months. News of human rights abuses in Eritrea is extremely difficult to get as Eritrea is the only African nation without any independent media. The government closed all private media and detained journalists and critics in September 2001. Foreign journalists cannot operate freely in Eritrea either.

President Isayas Afewerki makes no effort to deny that Eritrea is, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Africa's "foremost jailer of journalists", and he is unfazed by international criticism. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, the government insists however that Eritreans are "free to express their opinions."

Eritrea's acting Information Minister Ali Abdu Ahmed told IRIN that "no person is placed under arrest because of their political view". He said Eritrea's 18 detained journalists were "mercenaries" and their detention had nothing to do with the press law. "This is an issue of national security," he said. "It has nothing to do with politics." (http://www.irinnews.org/print.asp?ReportID=33864)

A similar strategy now appears to be being employed with regards to religion. In spite of the intense crackdown and severe persecution that Compass Direct has documented, the Eritrean government has issued a statement denying that persecution exists. "No groups or persons are persecuted in Eritrea for their beliefs or religion," the statement said. "People are free to worship according to their wish, or to refrain from worshipping or practising religion."
(http://www.irinnews.org/report.asp?ReportID=33809)

Also reminiscent of the way the government justifies the detention of journalists, is the government's apparent new strategy in detaining Protestants. This strategy could lead to the detention of Protestants being justified as an issue of national security that has nothing to do with religion.

The Compass Direct report below, details how 56 believers, 20 members of the Full Gospel Church and 36 from the Kale Hiwot Church, were taken by the military on 29 April 03, for conscription into military service. However, not even their families have been able to confirm their whereabouts.

- Elizabeth Kendal


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FLASH NEWS from COMPASS DIRECT
Global News from the Frontlines
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ERITREA ARRESTS, CONSCRIPTS MORE PROTESTANT CHRISTIANS
Asmara Government Denies Any Religious Persecution
Special to Compass Direct

Summary:

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. 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.

--------------------------------

Full Story:

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.

END

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