Since May 2002 when the Eritrean government announced that all churches other than the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches were to be closed, over two hundred evangelical Christians have been arrested for practicing what officials call “a new religion.” Following the government-led rejection of "non-Orthodox" Christian communities, Eritrean authorities instituted an ongoing campaign of open persecution against evangelical Christians.
The number of recent arrests has been staggering.
According to Compass News, three prominent Protestant pastors, the Rev. Haile Naizgi, Dr. Kiflu Gebremeske, and Pastor Tesfatsion Hagos, all imprisoned since last May, remain under arrest with no reason having been given for their imprison. Neither have they been charged any legal offense. And while police authorities have allowed the pastors’ families to bring them food and clothing while under detention, face-to-face contact has been denied.
Under standard procedures, any Eritrean citizen arrested by the police or military forces is subjected to thorough interrogation within the first 24 hours of arrest. However, Compass News reported that the three pastors were not summoned for questioning by local authorities until mid-July, seven weeks after their arrest.
Family members reportedly petitioned two weeks ago that the government release the men on bail, thus requiring that they be charged formally before a court of law. But according to a source close to the pastors’ families, one of the church leaders has sent word out stating, “Don’t expect my release anytime soon.”
Meanwhile, in another case, another evangelical pastor managed to escape from the Sawa Military Center, together with a well-known Christian musician also imprisoned there. After several months’ detention at Sawa, Pastor Mengse Tweldemedhane and singer Yonas Haile fled together across the Eritrean border into Sudan in late June.
The pastor of Asmara’s Hallelujah Church, Tweldemedhane had been locked in an underground cell at Adi-Abyto military camp after his arrest February 15 with 50 members of his congregation. He was later transferred to military confinement at the Sawa camp.
Haile, who was arrested in Asmara on March 19 for releasing a music video entitled “Jesus: the Solution to Man’s Problems,” had been incarcerated at Sawa since March 24.
Another popular Christian singer, Helen Berhane, remains under severe confinement in a shipping container at the Mai Serwa military camp just north of Asmara, where she was arrested on May 13.
According to sources, Berhane has refused to sign a document retracting her evangelical faith and promising to stop participating in local Protestant activities. A military commander reportedly told the 29-year-old woman, “You will be allowed no visitors, and you will rot here until you sign this paper.”
The Eritrean military reportedly uses metal shipping containers as severe-confinement cells, jailing up to 12 or 13 prisoners together or putting some individuals into solitary confinement. The prisoners are allowed out twice a day under guard to relieve themselves, but otherwise subjected to extreme temperatures day and night. “It’s like being stuck in an oven in the daytime, and then overnight it becomes a refrigerator,” recalled one evangelical after the experience.
Still another local Christian singer, Hamelmale Habtemichel of the Kale Kiwot Church, was arrested in Mendefera in the third week of June for issuing a new musical tape recording. She was taken into custody together with music shop owner Tsegay Abraha, who had recorded and displayed the singer’s tape for sale in her shop. Both were released from the Mendefera police station after nearly a month in custody.
Imprisoned evangelicals have been told by their Mai Serwa interrogators that the Eritrean Ministry of Defense has issued secret orders to invade and stop all secret house meetings of the outlawed Protestant believers. The orders came shortly after Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki declared publicly on March 5 that the government would not tolerate religious groups which were “distracting from the unity of the Eritrean people and distorting the true meaning of religion.”
The July 5 arrest of four more Protestant believers has been confirmed in or near the capital of Asmara. Two women from the Full Gospel Church were arrested while sharing their faith along the Abashawelo road in Asmara. It was the second arrest for Meaza Araya, 34, previously jailed for attending a secret worship meeting, but the first for Elsa Ghermay, 30, a single woman living with her elderly mother. Both were taken the same day to the Mai Serwa military prison, where they remain.
The same afternoon, two members of the Rema Church in Adi-Segdo were arrested from their homes without explanation by the military police. Dawit Mesghena and Tesafa Araya remain under detention at the Truck ‘B’ military camp near Asmara.
The Eritrean government closed down the nation’s independent Protestant churches in May 2002, forbidding the 20,000 members of 12 banned denominations to worship even in their homes.
Although the evangelicals were ordered to apply to the Department of Religious Affairs for registration in order to become legal again, those who completed the involved application process are still waiting two years later for a government response.
The Eritrean Constitution guarantees freedom of religion for all citizens. But Afewerki’s government recognizes only Orthodox Christians, Catholics, Lutherans and Muslims as members of the nation’s historic, “official” religions.