The new arrests of both Protestant evangelicals and Orthodox
renewal movement church members marked the Eritrean government’s
widening crackdown against Christians whose faith and freedom to
worship have been outlawed for nearly five years.
In an unprecedented arrest, on January 5 police officials in the
northern town of Keren took into custody eight staff members working
in government ministries.
The jailed Christians are all members of Medhane Alem, a renewal
movement within the Coptic Orthodox Church. Three Medhane Alem
priests have been jailed for nearly two years, and 10 months ago 65
of the group’s lay leaders were excommunicated from the church by
The Keren police station commander told families of the eight
imprisoned government staff members that the arrest order had come
from higher authorities.
“This is a new strategy of the government,” one local Christian
commented, echoing the belief of other area believers. It was the
first known arrest of government ministry staff solely for their
The same day, security police in the southern port city of Assab
arrested 25 Christians from their homes, workplaces and schools. All
25 prisoners were incarcerated at the Wi’a Military Camp and
subjected to harsh pressures to recant their religious beliefs.
Seven of the 25 Christian prisoners are women.
Remarks from security authorities in Assab have indicated that
the roundup of local Protestants was expected to continue.
Military Burns Conscripts’ Bibles
In another incident confirmed on January 4, military commanders
at the national Sawa Military Center conducted what they termed a
“random check-up on the activities of Christian extremists” among
While searching the conscripts’ personal effects, military
personnel found 250 Bibles that the Christian students were using in
their personal devotional time. After burning all the Bibles before
the entire military camp, the commanders arrested 35 of the teenage
students and ordered them subjected to severe military punishment,
including physical torture.
In May 2002, Eritrea closed down all independent religious groups
not operating under the umbrella of the government-sanctioned
Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran or Muslim faiths. Anyone caught
worshipping outside the four recognized religious institutions, even
in private homes, has been subjected to arrest, torture and severe
pressure to deny their faith.
Independent Protestant churches have been refused legal
registration, and subsequently the Orthodox Church and its
flourishing renewal movement also fell out of favor.
Last month the government of Eritrea wrested financial and
personnel control away from the Eritrean Orthodox Church, under de
facto government control since Patriarch Abune Antonios was placed
under house arrest and then divested of his ecclesiastical authority
18 months ago.
More than 2,000 Christians, including pastors and priests from
both Protestant and Orthodox churches, are now under arrest in
police stations, military camps and jails all across Eritrea because
of their religious beliefs. Although many have been incarcerated for
months or even years, none have been charged officially or given
access to judicial process.
In its 2006 religious freedom report, the U.S. State Department
for the third year in a row named Eritrea a “Country of Particular
Concern,” designating it one of the worst violators of religious
freedom in the world.