Eritrea Jails 34 Christians in Church Raid

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CWN.org -- Eritrean security police cracked down on more Christians again last week, arresting 34 evangelicals gathered for prayer and fellowship in a local home in Keren.

The police raid on May 28 targeted members of the Berhane Hiwet Church in Keren, Eritrea's third largest city 200 kilometers northwest of the capital Asmara.

All 24 men and 10 women present were taken to prison, with their children left behind. The next day security officials transferred the 10 women prisoners, all of them married, to the Adi-Abyto Military Confinement facility.

The Keren raid was the second round of arrests last week in Eritrea, where the oppressive regime has outlawed all independent Protestant churches since 2002, closing their buildings and banning gatherings in private homes.

Worshippers caught disobeying the blanket restrictions are arrested and tortured for weeks, months or even years. They are never allowed legal counsel or brought to trial.

Three days after the previous weekend's arrest of 25 Protestant Christians in Adi-Kuala on May 24, police authorities transferred them to the Wi'a Military Training Center, where they were being subjected to harsh military punishment.

Eyewitnesses in Adi-Kuala confirmed that security police officials were beating the prisoners as they loaded them on a truck to be transported to Wi'a on Tuesday.

Treason Charges

The new arrests followed a spate of unconfirmed reports that began circulating throughout the capital of Asmara last week, indicating that several leading Protestant pastors jailed for four years without charges may soon face trial for treason.

Full Gospel Church leaders Dr. Kifle Gebremeskel and Haile Naizghi and Pastor Tesfatsion Hagos of the Rema Evangelical Church have been imprisoned since May 2004. Their exact whereabouts remain unknown, with their families and church members refused any access to them.

At least 2,000 Eritrean Christians are incarcerated in local jails, police stations and military camps for their religious beliefs and practices. Some are held in underground cells or metal shipping containers in an effort to pressure them to recant their faith and join one of the nation's "historic" Christian churches.

The government recognizes only the Eritrean Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran churches as legal religions, in addition to the traditional Islam practiced by half of the population.

Rated since 2004 by the U.S. Department of State as a "Country of Particular Concern" for its severe restrictions on religious liberty, Eritrea was the first nation subjected to official U.S. sanctions under the 1998 Religious Freedom Act.

President Isaias Afwerki and his government categorically deny that religious persecution exists in Eritrea, insisting such reports are based on "false allegations, exaggeration and baseless fabrication."

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