The Eritrean government has released on bail more than 20 prisoners detained for years because of their faith, the BBC reports.
Sources told the British broadcaster that the prisoners are from evangelical and Pentecostal denominations, some held at Mai Serwa prison outside the capital Asmara.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) confirmed the news, putting the number released at 27.
In 2002, Eritrea introduced a new law that forbids all churches except for Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical Lutheran ones. Sunni Islam is also officially recognised.
The Horn of Africa nation is No. 6 on the Open Doors 2020 World Watch List of the 50 countries in which it is most difficult to live as a Christian.
According to a religious freedom campaigner from Asmara but now based in North America, Hannibal Daniel, believers who’d been in prison for up to 16 years have been freed on bail.
A regional spokesperson for Open Doors International said that, for some time, the group had heard discussion that prisoners might be freed on bail due to the coronavirus pandemic—as has happened in other countries—but could not independently confirm the reports: “If true, this could be quite significant.”
According to CSW sources, the group released consisted of 19 men and 8 women detained without charge or trial for 2 to 16 years. About 54 total releases were anticipated.
However, CSW stated no detained church leaders were released, while a handful more were arrested in Asmara weeks before.
“It is a government strategy,” stated CSW, quoting one of its sources. “They cannot detain everybody, so they keep you for some time, hoping that you will become weak or frightened. Then they put in other people. They release and put other people in prison at the same time.”
The source estimates 300 Christians remain detained.
The Eritrean government has not responded to BBC requests for confirmation or denial. Previously, it’s dismissed accusations of intolerance to religious freedom.
In May 2019, a monitoring group for the UN said “thousands” of Christians are facing detention as “religious freedom continue[s] to be denied in Eritrea” and questioned why the UN was not monitoring the situation more closely.
In June 2019, Reuters reported that more than 500,000 refugees worldwide have left Eritrea, up from 486,200 a year earlier.
Many flee compulsory military service, but others flee political or religious persecution.
That same month, the government seized all Catholic-run health clinics in the country, and arrested five Orthodox priests. These moves prompted the UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Eritrea, Daniela Kravetz, to call on the government to uphold religious freedom for its citizens and “release those who have been imprisoned for their religious beliefs.”
In August 2019, Eritrea’s Orthodox patriarch, Abune Antonios, was accused of heresy and expelled by pro-government bishops of his church; he remained in detention throughout 2019.
Antonios had been under house arrest since 2007, when he refused to comply with the regime’s attempts to interfere with church affairs.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) labels Eritrea a Country of Particular Concern, stating:
“In 2019, religious freedom conditions in Eritrea worsened, with increasing interference in and restrictions on religious groups. In spite of the significant regional political changes and the 2018 peace agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia, Eritrea continues to have one of the worst religious freedom records in the world, and has shown little interest in concretely improving the situation.”
The US State Department estimates there are between 1,200 and 3,000 prisoners held for their faith. USCIRF included some of those cases in its new Victims List.
Some prisoners, such as the leader of the Full Gospel Church, have been in prison for more than 15 years.
At least 150 Eritrean Christians were arrested by government officials during summer 2019, with some held in an underground prison made up of tunnels.
For instance, on August 18, 2019, Eritrean security officials detained 80 Christians from Godayef, an area near Asmara airport.
Four days later, on August 22, the United Nations observed its first annual commemoration of victims of religiously motivated violence. “On this day, we reaffirm our unwavering support for the victims of violence based on religion and belief. And we demonstrate that support by doing all in our power to prevent such attacks and demanding that those responsible are held accountable,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres.
The Eritrean government’s 2019 clampdown on evangelical Christians had begun in June 2019 when security officials arrested 70 members (among them 35 women and 10 children) of the Faith Mission Church of Christ, in Eritrea’s second city, Keren. These were taken to Ashufera prison, outside the city.
The prison is a vast underground tunnel system, and conditions in which detainees are held are very harsh, a local source said. It’s far from a main road, the source said, which “means that anyone who wants to visit has to walk a minimum of 30 minutes to reach the entrance. Inmates are forced to dig additional tunnels when officers need extra space for more prisoners.”
After the 2019 arrests, government officials also closed the church-run school, said the local source, whose identity World Watch Monitor withheld for security reasons.
The Faith Mission Church of Christ was the last church still open in the majority-Muslim city, 56 miles northwest of Asmara. Started over 60 years ago, the church once had schools and orphanages all over the country, according to CSW.
The church had been waiting for registration since it submitted an application in 2002 when the government introduced the new law. This clampdown sent other Christians in Keren into hiding, the source said.
“While applauding the fact that people who were deprived of their liberty have regained their freedom, it is also important to recall that they were detained arbitrarily and without due process for excessive periods simply on account of their religious beliefs,” said Mervyn Thomas, CSW’s founding president. “Moreover, these releases remain conditional, as they were secured by property deeds, leaving the guarantors vulnerable to losing their properties.
“Far more prisoners of conscience remain arbitrarily detained than have been released, and the fact that these releases were preceded by further arrests is indicative of an ongoing repression of the right to freedom of religion or belief,” he said. “CSW therefore continues to call for the immediate and unconditional release of prisoners detained arbitrarily, particularly in view of a pandemic that poses a risk to life for those still held in inhumane conditions.”
Additional reporting by Jeremy Weber