Debates over religious freedom in Eritrea are back in the media after security agents in the country launched a manhunt for Pentecostal churches who attended a sermon given by an Ethiopian evangelist last month.
The evangelist, Surafiel Demssie, had arrived in the capital, Asmara, on the first Ethiopian Airlines flight to Eritrea after both countries brought to an end their 20-year deadly border war.
Since May 2002, the Eritrean government has officially recognized only four religions – Sunni Islam, the Coptic Orthodox Church of Eritrea, the Roman Catholic Church and the (Lutheran) Evangelical Church of Eritrea.
All other Christian denominations such as Pentecostals must apply annually for government registration.
Five people, who welcomed the famous Ethiopian preacher, have since been picked up in Asmara while several others have gone into hiding, news site BBC reports.
“At first the police said they were arrested for blocking a road and would be released soon,” a relative of one of those arrested was quoted by the BBC.
He said they later realized that it was the National Security Agency which had arrested them.
“We were very happy when the peace agreement was signed between Ethiopia and Eritrea,” Kesete Beraki, who advocates for the release of those in detention said.
“We were hoping there would be changes in Eritrea too, but so far we have been disappointed.”
As at the time of filing this report, those arrested had not appeared before a court.
Per Eritrean laws, prisoners of conscience, including followers of evangelical churches, do not get charged formally before any court of law.
Currently, the majority of the over 2,000 religious prisoners are Pentecostals and Evangelicals, according to media reports.
The Eritrean government is said to have introduced the 2002 decree due to suspicions it has about new religious communities, particularly the Protestant Evangelical and Pentecostal communities.
“It has characterized these groups as being part of a foreign campaign to infiltrate the country, engaging in aggressive evangelism alien to Eritrea’s cultural traditions and causing social divisions,” according to news site Global Christian News.
In effect, think twice before entering this East African country if you belong to the following religious groups – Evangelical, Pentecostal Christians and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Some 1,200 to 3,000 people have already been severely persecuted, including being arbitrarily imprisoned under harsh conditions and tortured for belonging to these churches that are not recognized, according to a report by Christian organization, Barnabas Fund.
Here’s how people are reacting to the situation in Eritrea:
— Ermias (@ermile5) August 5, 2018
— Mustofa Ahmed (@dizwandiz) August 9, 2018
In particular what exactly is being done to institute a free and independent judiciary system that can handle all types of cases publicly? #QuestionsForisaias
— ECM (@BinEritree) August 6, 2018
#Eritrea’s PFDJ allowed Ethiopian Pentecostal Church pastor to freely preach in Asmara without repercussions; after he left, they imprisoned Eritreans who participated in the worship. The “peace” dividend. #QuestionsforIsaias: when will you end depriving Eritreans of freedom? https://t.co/xu949ij5JZ
— CHANNEL TEGARU (@ChannelTegaru) July 26, 2018
— One Day Seyoum (@OneDaySeyoum) August 5, 2018