Eritrea Arrests, Conscripts More
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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