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19 June 2013

Eritrean Christians imprisoned in shipping containers

Eritrea in East Africa has a population of 5.6 million, 47 per cent of which are Christian, mostly Orthodox.The country has faced turmoil, being occupied by the British until 1941 and only gaining full autonomy from Ethiopia in 1993. Conflict continued after their independence, first with Yemen and then with Ethiopia again, resulting in many refugees leaving the country. A peace accord was signed with Ethiopia in 2000, and an uneasy peace has held since then.

Eritrea ranks tenth in Open Doors' World Watch List of the worst countries for Christian persecution, and the repressive nature of the regime has led to it being compared to North Korea. In response to the continual human rights violations in Eritrea, on 14 June 2013 the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution to increase the scope of the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur for the country.

The Special Rapporteur's report on Eritrea details "the severe restrictions on freedom of opinion and expression, freedom of information, freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and freedom of peaceful assembly and association, including the detention of journalists, human rights defenders, political actors, religious leaders and practitioners in Eritrea."

The report also condemns "the continued widespread and systematic violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms committed by the Eritrean authorities, including cases of arbitrary and extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, the use of torture, arbitrary and incommunicado detention without recourse to justice, and detention in inhumane and degrading conditions." (CSW, June 2013).

Holding allegiance to a higher being is seen by the government as a threat to Eritrea's national unity (CSW, May 2013). All churches except the Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran have been effectively banned by the Eritrean government since 15 May 2002, and currently over 2,000 Christians are detained in Eritrea without trial or charge, many being kept in shipping containers. To mark the eleventh anniversary of the restrictions on churches in Eritrea, the Evangelical Alliance Wales joined other organisations including Alliance members Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) and Release International for a protest vigil outside the Eritrean Embassy in London on 30 May 2013. Since 2002 religious organisations have also been banned from taking part in politics, and other religions are also persecuted if they do not come under government control.

Release International, an Alliance member, reported that from mid-January to mid-February of this year 50 Christians were thought to have been arrested in the capital city of Asmara. This included an 85-year-old woman accused of hosting a Bible study group in her home.

Alliance member Open Doors UK describes how Christian-background believers and independent Christians in Eritrea can be spied on by members of the Eritrean Orthodox Church. Christians are held in military camps, and 2012 saw 31 reported cases of Christians dying in prison. Open Doors UK tells the story of Yohannes, an Eritrean Christian who was arrested at a Christian wedding and jailed for a year. He explains how Christians are tortured in prison, with some becoming disabled, and how Bibles are smuggled in and read in secret. Going to prison is a 'daily threat' for Christians, but Yohannes strongly believes that Jesus is the hope for Eritrea.

Yohannes values the prayers of Christians around the world: "Sometimes you feel that you are totally neglected, totally forgotten. But I believe the body of Christ is praying for Eritrea for the freedom of religion in our country. And I want to say thank you to the Christian community all over the world."

Please pray:

  • Thank God for the Special Rapporteur on Eritrea, appointed after years of joint prayer and lobbying, and pray for wisdom and effectiveness;
  • For God's strength and presence for Christians in prison in Eritrea and their families;
  • For God's Church to grow in Eritrea, and for leaders and members to be protected from persecution;
  • For just and Godly leaders to rise up in Eritrea and bring a change to the regime.