African Union Urged To Press Eritrea to Release Christians

Freedom House Protest Arrests of Prominent Eritrean Pastors and Christian Singers

Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom today called upon African Union leaders currently meeting in Addis Ababa to press the government of Eritrea, in the horn of Africa, to free three prominent pastors and two popular Christian singers arrested as part of a two-year government crackdown against evangelical Christians. All detainees are Eritrean.

According to the Christian news service Compass Direct, at 6 a.m on Sunday, May 23, Haile Naizgi, chairman of the Full Gospel Church, one of Eritrea’s largest Pentecostal denominations, and Dr. Kifle Gebremeskel, chairman of the Eritrean Evangelical Alliance, were arrested at their homes in the capital Asmara. During the arrests, police officials reportedly confiscated the keys to the pastors’ offices and verbally threatened the men’s wives.

Four days later, Pastor Tesfatsion Hagos of the Rema Evangelical Church in Asmara was arrested while visiting Massawa, Compass Direct also reported. Hagos’ fellow church members confirmed to Amnesty International that they have been unable to learn their pastor’s whereabouts since his arrest. Hagos is married with three children.

Another detainee is Singer Helen Berhane, 29, who recently released an album of Christian music popular among youth. Compass Direct reports that she has been incarcerated since May 13 in a shipping container at the Mai Serwa military camp. A member of the Rema Church, Berhane has reportedly refused demands that she sign a paper recanting her faith in Christ and agreeing to stop singing and participating in Christian activities. Her detention follows the March arrest of evangelical singer Yonas Haile, arrested a month after releasing a Christian videotape and believed to still be jailed at the Sawa military center.

The Christians have not appeared in court or been charged with any offense, as is legally required within 48 hours of arrest. The detainees are being held without access to their families or other visitors.

The arrests of these well-known evangelical Christians comes in the wake of specific threats issued to local evangelical leaders in mid April. During a meeting called by the government’s Department of Religious Affairs, pastors of banned Christian churches were reportedly ordered to “not inform anyone outside Eritrea of your problems.” They were also forbidden to invite Christian speakers from abroad to Eritrea without first obtaining government permission. The pastors present at the meeting rejected these demands, vowing, in fact, to inform the outside world of the threats made against them and to continue until their constitutional rights to freedom of worship are restored.

Meanwhile, a few Christian prisoners have recently been released. Among them is Yohannes Oqbazgi, freed on May 13. He is a Full Gospel Church pastor jailed for the past 13 months in the Adi-Nefasse military prison. Several other evangelical community members freed in recent weeks have shown evidence of severe physical mistreatment.

Two years ago, President Issayas Afewerki’s government closed down all 12 of Eritrea’s independent evangelical churches, forbidding their congregations to worship even in private homes. Since then, pastors, soldiers, women, children, and the elderly all have been jailed after being caught worshipping, reading the Bible, or praying together. The state recognizes only four “historic” faith groups: Christian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran and Islam.

The U.S. State Department reports that over 300 Christians remain in prison. Earlier this year, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent government agency, recommended that Eritrea be designated by the State Department as a “Country of Particular Concern” for egregious religious persecution.