The Eritrean government has released on bail 27 Christians imprisoned because of their faith. They have been detained without trial for varying terms between four and 16 years. However, conditions are attached to the release and the majority have been sent back into indefinite national service.
Church in Eritrea
Earlier this month, 27 Christians imprisoned in Eritrea because of their faith were released on bail by the country’s government.
The 19 men and eight women – all from Evangelical and Pentecostal backgrounds – left Mai Serwa Prison, outside the capital city Asmara, on 4 and 8 September. They had been detained without trial for various terms between four and 16 years.
“The cycle of arrest and release is not anything new," said an Open Doors spokesperson, of the release. “But what makes this unusual is the fact that those released have been inside for quite long.” Reports have suggested the release is linked to coronavirus, however Open Doors sources have not been able to verify this.
"What makes this unusual is the fact that those released have been inside for quite long." Open Doors spokesperson
Release was granted only after the Christians handed over property documents and signed a ‘some kind of declaration that usually includes a promise to cease religious activities’, the spokesperson said.
Open Doors sources have been told by local sources that, on leaving prison, most of the Christians were sent back into national service. In Eritrea, national service is compulsory for every citizen, but the duration is indefinite and can often be in inhumane conditions and without enough salary to cover essentials. It’s a key reason why Eritreans flee the country.
Despite Christians making up almost half the country’s population, Eritrea is number 6 on the World Watch List, putting it amongst the most dangerous places in the world to be a Christian.
The country only recognises four religious groups – Christian Orthodox, Lutheran Church, Catholic Church and Sunni Islam – which come under tight government control. Christians not part of these groups are considered agents of the West and a threat to the state.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom states that Eritrea is a ‘Country of Particular Concern’, with religious freedom conditions worsening in 2019 following ‘increasing interference in and restrictions on religious groups’.
"Christians not part of these groups are considered agents of the West and a threat to the state."
Last summer, at least 150 Eritrean Christians were arrested by government officials. This included 70 members (among them 35 women and 10 children) of Faith Mission Church of Christ in Keren, Eritrea’s second city. They were taken to Ashufera prison, 25km from the city, which is made up of a vast underground system of tunnels in which the living conditions are very harsh.
The US State Department estimates that there are between 1,200 and 3,000 prisoners held because of their faith. But in truth it is impossible to get an accurate figure. No official statistics are available and prisoners are never formally charged. Local sources report that there are hundreds of long-term prisoners, with thousands more detained in waves over shorter periods.
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