Rising hopes that perhaps Eritrea was taking a step in the right direction with regards to its religious minority communities were dashed when last week, another 35 Eritrean Christians were rounded up and arrested during a peaceful prayer gathering. Eritrean armed forces, whose barracks were located near where the prayer meeting was held in the local administrative area Mai Chehot, interrupted the gathering and arrested the entire group of 23 women. These 23 women were transported to nearby Mai Sarawa prison, a detention center with a reputation for being overcrowded and unsanitary, and lacking adequate food supplies and health facilities, the latter of which has caused increasing concern amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
Directly following the mass arrest of the 23 women in Mai Chehot, Eritrean security forces arrested another 12 Christians who were holding an informal worship session in one of the participant’s homes. It is believed that neighbors were disgruntled by the Christian prayer meetings and tipped off the military regarding the gatherings. Others have emphasized that, in Eritrea, citizens feel the personal duty or responsibility to “report anything untoward happening in their community. This can turn ordinary neighbours into spies. In some cases their family members have reported Christians.”
These new arrests come nearly a month after Eritrean authorities released 21 female Christian prisoners – all of whom are allegedly young mothers – after they had spent seven months in a Red Sea island prison. Hopes were raised in response to this mass release, especially considering that numerous other prisoner releases were carried out since August 2020 that resulted in 171 Eritrean Christians being freed.
Emoke Denes of Release International revealed her theories for the string of releases that preceded the recent arrests, stating that “the recent release of Christians could be a reason to divert the attention of the media” away from the Tigray crisis. “It is not working”, she asserts. Paul Robinson, CEO of Release International, further theorizes that “the latest prisoner releases may be to curry favor with the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, who is a Christian.”
Following the Ethiopian Prime Minister’s decision to launch a military offensive on the region of Tigray to combat the resistance activities of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, Eritrean forces have joined the conflict and together, Ethiopian and Eritrean troops have committed myriad human rights violations in the region, including extrajudicial killings of TPLF fighters and civilians. Human rights organizations alike have been voicing their perspective that the mass releases of Eritrean Christian prisoners have been leveled as a tactic of media diversion. But they also agree that, while these releases are welcome and appreciated, (1) all religious prisoners of conscience should be released, and (2) the world will not turn a blind eye to the atrocities happening in Tigray.
Director of Outreach at Aid to the Church in Need, Edward Clancy, stressed:
“If the release [of the Christians from prison] is an effort to obfuscate and distract from Tigray, it will not be successful. The government cannot erase their many violations nor make people forget their record. Hopefully the government of Eritrea is seeing the errors of their ways and change is happening, but as with the number of women released in comparison to those imprisoned, much more will need to be done before there is any semblance of religious freedom in Eritrea. [The release is] good news and certainly for the women and their families, but it is a token effort if it is not followed up by even more releases and changes in the laws.”
Dr. Berhane Asmelash, a partner of Release International, explained:
“This latest wave of arrests is proof positive that there has been no change in the repressive government policy towards religious freedom. Unless there is a change of policy these will continue to be dangerous times for Christians in Eritrea, where many are suffering for their faith.”
Cover image by Beautiful Faces of Berlin on Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0): “Coptic Christians from Eritrea and Ethiopia, Orthodox Christmas Celebration at the Church of the Nativity, West Bank town of Bethlehem January 6, 2012”