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Eritrea Cracks Down on Catholic Believers
by Compass Direct

LOS ANGELES, January 14 (Compass) -- Eritrean authorities extended their crackdown on organized religion this past week to Roman Catholic citizens, arresting and jailing 25 members of the Catholic Church during a wedding rehearsal in Asmara.

The victimized bride and groom had met with their wedding party on Sunday morning, January 9, to rehearse their planned ceremony two weeks before the wedding. But police inexplicably entered the building, a facility rented by the Tebadasso renewal group of the Catholic Church, and stopped the proceedings.

The entire group present, including the wedding couple, was jailed at Asmara’s Police Station No. 1, where they remained under arrest as of yesterday.

This arrest marked the first such reported crackdown on members of Eritrea’s Catholic community, who enjoy “official” recognition by the government, along with Orthodox and Lutheran Christians, and Muslims.

In a televised speech from Rome the day after the Asmara arrests, Pope John Paul II listed religious liberty as one of four challenges facing the world in 2005. “It is necessary that religious freedom be everywhere provided, with an effective constitutional guarantee,” the Catholic pontiff said.

The same Sunday morning, security police swooped down on a wedding ceremony being held in Barentu, a town in western Eritrea, arresting the 67 evangelical Christians present. Participants had been escorting the bride to the wedding venue when police intervened and took them all to prison, including the wedding couple.

Three clergymen among the prisoners were identified as pastors Oqbamichel and Simon from the Kale Hiwot Church, and Hagos Tuomai from the Full Gospel Church.

Reportedly the 67 prisoners were to be taken to the Sawa Military Training Center for “military punishment.”

Local sources said it was “very disturbing” that a number of elderly people and young children were among those jailed, and asked Christians around the world to “pray and protest.”

Still a third arrest was reported on January 9 in the Beleza district of northern Asmara, where four men meeting for morning prayer were arrested by the police. All members of the Kale Hiwot Church, the men are currently being held under military confinement in the Mai-Serwa camp north of Asmara.

Meanwhile, Compass has confirmed that 25 of the 60 Rema Charismatic Church members arrested at a New Year’s Eve celebration in Asmara have been released after signing a pledge not to participate in such meetings again. The pastor’s wife had previously been set free on January 4, leaving her husband, Habteab Oqbamichel, and 33 other Rema believers still in custody at Mai-Serwa.

Curiously, when Eritrean Christians celebrated Christmas on January 7 this year, the annual Christmas message always broadcast by the Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church was not aired on national media.

The unexplained lapse is attributed to growing tensions between the government and Patriarch Abune Antonios, who has reportedly accused government authorities of “interfering” in the religious affairs of his church. The patriarch recently voiced his objections to the arrest of senior members of the Medani Alem Fellowship, a religious institution within the Coptic Orthodox Church.

Traditionally, half of Eritrea’s population is Christian and the other half is Sunni Muslim. The majority of Christians belong to the traditional Orthodox Church founded in the region in the 4th century, with Catholics and Protestants representing five and two percent, respectively, of the national population.

Since May 2002, the government of Eritrea has targeted the nation’s independent Protestant churches, closing down their places of worship and arresting and torturing hundreds of their members for involvement in “illegal religions.”

Three leading Protestant pastors have been held incommunicado under arrest since May 2004 by the government, and hundreds of evangelical soldiers remain imprisoned for refusing to recant their faith.

Despite being named last fall by the U.S. State Department as a “country of particular concern” for its severe violations of religious liberty, Eritrea denies that any religious persecution is taking place.

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