Eritrea: Gospel singer freed, but religious persecution persists

Celebration for release of Helen Berhane marred by a further 160 Christians arrested

Amnesty International welcomes the release of Eritrean gospel singer Helen Berhane, who had been held incommunicado without charge or trial for two and a half years but is concerned by the recent arrest of 160 men, Women's rights's rightss rights's rights's rights's rights and Children's rights who were members of banned churches in Eritrea.

On 15 and 16 October worshippers of the Kale Hiwot (Word of God) Church, the Full Gospel Church, the Church of the Living God and the Rema Church – none of which is officially recognised in Eritrea – were arrested. It is not known where they are being held and they are at risk of torture. Two of the men who were detained – Immanuel Andegergesh and Kibrom Firemichael – are reported to have died after being tortured in an effort to force them to renounce their faith.

News of these arrests and deaths coincide with the release of Helen Berhane, an evangelical Christian also a member of Rema Church who was detained without charge or trial and who spent most of her detention locked up in a metal shipping container.

Amnesty International UK Media Director, Mike Blakemore said:

“Despite the news of Helen Berhane’s release, Amnesty International remains concerned that the systematic persecution of people on the basis of their religion continues unabated in Eritrea. This is absolutely unacceptable and Amnesty will continue to campaign for these people to be released and for international law to be upheld.”

An Amnesty report released last year found that in 2005 the Eritrean government had increased the violent repression of religious minorities. The crackdown, which started without any explanation in 2003, is part of a general disregard by the Eritrean government for human rights by President Issayas Afewerki’s government, which has been in power since the country’s independence from Ethiopia in 1991.

Mike Blakemore continued:

“What is happening in Eritrea is a total violation of human rights and cannot be allowed to continue. This is why Amnesty is urgently appealing to its members to write to the Eritrean authorities to ask for the immediate and unconditional release of these Christians recently arrested.”

In addition to the 160 Christians recently arrested, there are scores of members of other faith groups who have been kept in indefinite and incommunicado detention without charge or trial. They include three Jehovah’s Witnesses detained for 12 years for refusing military service, and dozens of members of dissenting groups of the official Orthodox Church and Muslim Council.

Background

Since 2002, only the Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran Christian churches and Islam have been allowed to operate in Eritrea. Members of some 35 minority Christian evangelical churches face fierce persecution, even though freedom of religion is guaranteed in the Eritrean Constitution. An estimated 2,000 members of minority churches, including about 20 pastors, are currently detained. Detainees are held incommunicado in harsh conditions without charge or trial. They are imprisoned in police stations at first, then in army camps and security prisons in different parts of the country, including the main military training centre at Sawa. Some are held in metal shipping containers and underground prisons. Several detainees have become seriously ill and are rarely provided with adequate medical treatment. They are repeatedly tortured by being beaten and being tied up in painful positions, in an effort to make them cease worshipping and recant their faith.

This followed the establishment of a compulsory registration scheme for all religious organisations under the Department for Religious Affairs. Though minority churches were willing to register, the process was fraught with difficulties and so they were unable to do so.

Despite this disturbing account, Eritrea has a highly religious population with an average of 98 per cent of its 3.7 million people belonging to a long-established branch of a major world religion. The four main “officially recognised” religions are: the Eritrean Catholic Church – part of the worldwide Roman Catholic movement, the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Islam of the Sunni rite and the Evangelical Church of Eritrea – also known as the Lutheran Church.

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