(Images courtesy Compass Direct News, Open Doors)
A brief and quickly-ended coup attempt executed by dissident soldiers did little to provoke an uprising. It was over before it really began. However, it did give rise to two thoughts: (1) the government was dealing with discontent, and (2) due to the heightened tension, anyone who fell outside the prescribed government lines was under scrutiny.
The latter was particularly true for Christians, who voiced expectation of a spike in harassment and oppression. True to form, the government obliged. Paul Estabrooks, Open Doors Minister-at-large, explains that on February 20, "Seven more believers were arrested. Three of them work for the telecom company, one is a university student, and there was one woman among the seven--a mother of five."
The government only allows Catholic, Orthodox, and Evangelical Lutheran churches. As to why Eritrea's government seems to focus on evangelical and Pentecostal Christians, Estabrooks suggests, "For some reason--and it's suspected that it's to do with a perception of evangelical Christianity being aligned with America, the government has decided that it's illegal to worship in any [denomination] other than those three."
Open Doors partners say that officials arrived during office hours at the Eritrean Telecommunications Corporation and took into custody employees: Petros Araya, Aster Ghermay, and Ferewini Hagos.
At the same time, university student Daniel Mesfin, and another Christian--Samson Tekle, were both taken from their homes in the Mai-Temenai district northeast of Asmara. Open Doors has learned that these two men have both only recently come to faith in Christ.
Officials also collected Haile Gebremiskel Wodi Keshi from his home. He is married and the father of three. Azib Hadgu--a married woman and mother of five--was taken from her small store in Asmara.
Their well-being remains unknown, says Estabrooks. "We don't know where they're being held, or where they'll be moved to. They don't have enough prison cells in Eritrea for that many prisoners, so they keep them in shipping containers." Estimates are that there are 1500-3000 Christians being held this way.
Worse yet, the legal system isn't protecting the rights of the Christians, either. "There never is a court case in these situations. They don't have any chance to defend themselves, so they are simply charged with ‘worshipping outside prescribed church denominational facilities.'"
Sometimes, the detention is used to try to force a Christian to recant. Open Doors partners have shared reports in which survivors revealed the pressure they faced. "All these people have to do is sign a document that they will no longer be evangelical Christians, they'll no longer follow Jesus, and they'll be released immediately. 'Just sign the document, and you're free.' And yet, our brothers and sisters refuse to sign that document and remain in these terrible prison conditions."
The harsh treatment of Christians hasn't escaped notice. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has designated Eritrea as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for several years. Systematic and ongoing religious freedom violations continue. The report says these violations include: torture or other ill-treatment of thousands of religious prisoners; arbitrary arrests and detentions without charges of members of unregistered religious groups; a prolonged ban on public religious activities; revocation of citizenship rights of Jehovah‘s Witnesses; interference in the internal affairs of registered religious groups; and inordinate delays in responding to registration applications from religious groups.
"Every time we hear about believers being taken to prison, we wonder with the Psalmist, 'How long O, Lord?' But the one comfort that we all have in the Lord is that the gates of hell shall not prevail against Christ and His Church.... We need to continue crying to the Lord for help. Our help comes from Him alone," commented an Open Doors source who remains anonymous for security reasons.
Estabrooks urges prayer for these Christians. "Ask God to bring justice to their situation and faithfulness to those who are finding themselves in these terrible prison situations in Eritrea." Also remember the 40 believers arrested since January 1.