Thursday, June 10, 2004

Eritrea: the intolerable suffering of Eritrean evangelicals.

Date: Thursday 10 June 2004
Subj: Eritrea: the intolerable suffering of Eritrean evangelicals.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis
From: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal.

In May 2002, the Eritrean government banned all but the Sunni Muslims, Eritrean Orthodox Church, Eritrean Catholic Church and Lutheran denominations. The Full Gospel Church (Pentecostal), Assemblies of God, Kale Heywet (SIM), and all other independent and evangelical churches are now banned. A government crackdown on evangelicals (which is tacitly sanctioned by the Orthodox Church) commenced in early 2003. The persecution has been severe and is escalating.

On 24 March 2004 Compass Direct reported, "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 5 March 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."


On 4 June 2004, Compass Direct News reported the arrest in Eritrea of three more significant Christian leaders and one prominent, popular Christian singer. Compass Direct names those arrested as:

* HAILE NAIZGI, chairman of the Full Gospel (Mullu Wongel) Church. He was arrested at his home in Asmara on Sunday 23 May and is being held in Asmara's 1st Police Station without access to visitors. Naizgi, married with four children, previously worked as an accountant for World Vision.

* DR KIFLE GEBREMESKEL, who earned his PhD in an American university and formerly worked as a mathematics professor at the University of Asmar. He was also arrested in his home in Asmara on 23 May and is being held in Asmara's 6th Police Station. Dr Gebremeskal is also a leader in the Full Gospel Church, as well as being the chairman of the Eritrean Evangelical Alliance.

* PASTOR TESFATSION HAGOS of the Rema Evangelical Church in Asmara. He was arrested on 27 May while visiting the port city of Massawa. Pastor Hagos is married with 3 children. His whereabouts is unknown.

* HELEN BERHANE, a popular Christian singer aged 29 years, has been incarcerated in a metal shipping container at the Mai Serwa military camp since 13 May. She is refusing to recant her faith or cease Christian activities. She is a member of the Rema Church and had recently released a music CD that was very popular. Her case is similar to that of another evangelical Christian singer, YONAS HAILE, who was arrested in March after releasing a Christian video. It is believed that he is incarcerated at the Sawa Military Center.

This brings the total number of Eritrean evangelicals incarcerated on account of their faith to over 400.


On 19 May 2004, Amnesty International released a report on Eritrea entitled "'You have no right to ask' - Government resists scrutiny on human rights." (Link 1)

Section 3, entitled "Religious Persecution", is devoted to the issue of persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses and evangelical Protestant minorities. It is a good summary and worth reading.


Section 4 of the AI report is entitled "Torture and ill-treatment of prisoners". It reveals the truly horrific situation of these incarcerated Christians. AI writes that conditions of detention are extremely harsh and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has no access to any Eritrean prisoners or to the prisons.

Most Christian prisoners are held in metal shipping containers brought in from the ports to accommodate the overflow of prisoners. As AI reports, "In August 2003, 57 school students on a summer vacation work project at Sawa army base were imprisoned in containers for possessing bibles and belonging to minority churches."

Compass Direct has reported that whole families and even congregations have been detained in shipping containers. This includes young children and the elderly, purely on account of their faith and their refusal to recant.

AI reports, "Prisoners held in shipping containers are locked up for almost 24 hours a day. Children are held with adults. Containers, which contain no cell furniture, are overcrowded and become extremely hot and suffocating during the day and very cold at night, with little room to sleep or move. The conditions are unhygienic and infectious diseases spread rapidly, especially through absence of toilet facilities and the prevalence of diarrhoea among prisoners forced to use a bucket inside the container for a toilet. One former prisoner told of detainees being forced to lie in diarrhoea as a punishment."


Amnesty International notes, "Torture is systematically practiced within the army for interrogation and punishment, particularly of conscription evaders, deserters and soldiers accused of military offences, and members of minority churches."

One torture method listed by AI is called the "Jesus Christ": "The victim is stripped to the waist [. . .] standing on a block with hands tied to a tree branch; the block is removed, leaving the victim suspended with the feet just off the ground in a crucifix-like posture. Beatings are inflicted on the bare back. This is said to be an extremely severe torture, restricted to only 10-15 minutes to avoid serious lasting injury."

The most common form of torture is "The helicopter": "The victim is tied with a rope [with] hands and feet behind the back, lying on the ground face down, outside in the hot sun, rain or freezing cold nights, stripped of upper garments. This is a punishment allocated for a particular number of days, the maximum reported being 55 days in the Dahlak Kebir island prison, but it is more often one or two weeks. The prisoner is tied in this position 24 hours a day, except for two or three short breaks for meals and toilet functions."

Electric shocks and sexual torture are also used. Christian prisoners are tortured with the aim of forcing a renunciation of faith. Multitudes of evangelical believers of all ages are enduring great suffering, including torture, in preference to renouncing their faith in, and love for, their Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.


In January this year, Eritrea objected to the US State Department's condemnation of Eritrea as an abuser of religious freedom. The Eritrean government defiantly declared, "Eritrea is a secular country with absolute freedom of belief." The government boasted of "peaceful coexistence and religious harmony", "freedom and rights of individuals to follow and practice their chosen religion", and that all citizens were fully legally protected from religious persecution and discrimination.

As mentioned in the most recent WEA RL Prayer bulletin, "The Eritrean government has warned leaders of the evangelical minority not to report on their suffering. Nevertheless, the churches release this information, knowing they will be harshly punished, yet hoping their brothers and sisters around the world will pray for them, and governments that believe in freedom and justice will support them."

- Elizabeth Kendal


1) AI - ERITREA: "'You have no right to ask' - Government resists
scrutiny on human rights."
19 May 2004