Prominent Pastors and Christian Singers Arrested

The Center has learned that Eritrean police jailed three prominent pastors and two popular Christian singers, escalating a two-year government crackdown against evangelical Christians.

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 6 a.m. at their homes in Asmara. During the arrests, police officials 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. 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. 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 evangelical 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 legal, constitutional rights to freedom of worship are restored.

Meanwhile, a few Christians 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. At least 400 other Christians are still in prison.

Two years ago, leftist 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” religious institutions: Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical Lutheran churches, and Islam.

The Center urges its members to contact the Embassy of Eritrea to the United States in protest of the treatment of these Christians at:

His Excellency Girma Asmeron

Ambassador of Eritrea

1708 New Hampshire Ave, NW

Washington DC 20009

Fax: (202) 319-1304