Haile Naizghi, Dr. Kifle Gebremeskel and Tesfatsion Hagos
Conviction would bring death penalty; police arrest 25 Christians at prayer meeting.
LOS ANGELES, May 27 (Compass Direct News) – Unconfirmed reports emerged this month in the Eritrean capital of Asmara, indicating that the repressive regime plans to press formal charges of treason against several Protestant pastors jailed for the past four years.
Official conviction for treason carries the death penalty in the tiny Horn of Africa nation, ruled by what many regard as one of the world’s most brutal and paranoid governments in matters of religious liberty and freedom of speech.
Relatives and church members of the long-jailed pastors are experiencing “great anxiety” over these unconfirmed reports, sources inside Eritrea told Compass this week.
Three of the most prominent Protestant pastors – Full Gospel Church leaders Haile Naizghi and Dr. Kifle Gebremeskel, together with Tesfatsion Hagos of the Rema Evangelical Church – have been imprisoned incommunicado for the past four years.
According to an investigative report released last week by Reporters Without Borders, these three pastors “have been missing within the Eritrean prison system since their arrests in May 2004.”
The report fingered special presidential adviser and government minister Naizghi Kiflu as “the man within the government in charge of crushing the churches.”
In May 2002 Kiflu banned 36 churches and religious groups from state recognition on the pretext of “grounds that they allegedly encouraged insurrection and supported networks of deserters,” the report said.
Although Eritrean law prohibits the detention of any citizen without charges for more than 30 days, the government has refused to file official charges against any of these pastors or give any reason for jailing them and hundreds of their church members.
At least 15 other pastors, priests and deacons are known to be among more than 2,000 Christians incarcerated in jails, police stations and military camps all across Eritrea for their religious beliefs and practices. They have been repeatedly subjected to beatings and torture and sometimes locked in metal shipping containers or underground cells to force them to recant their faith.
In the latest arrests last weekend, police raided a private home and jailed 25 Christians who had gathered on Eritrea’s Independence Day to pray for the nation.
Sources inside Eritrea confirmed to Compass yesterday that 20 men and five women meeting in a fellow Christian’s home in Adi-Kuala on Saturday (May 24) were taken into custody.
All 25 are members of the local Medhane group, a renewal movement within the Eritrean Orthodox Church.
The prisoners are now being held in the police station in Adi-Kuala, a town near the Eritrean-Ethiopian border at Mareb.
But local sources remained fearful that the authorities planned to transfer them to the Wi’a Military Training Center, notorious for its fierce mistreatment of religious prisoners.
At the same time, Compass has confirmed the release of two separate groups of Christian prisoners held in detention for the past three months.
Ten members of the Church of the Living God, a breakaway group from the Eritrean Orthodox Church, were set free after three months’ detention in the Mendefera police station.
Another 15 members of the Kale Hiwot Church who had been held in the Keren police station were also reported released.
All the discharged prisoners were forced to pay 80,000 nakfa (US$5,330) per person as bail. When they were set free, authorities strictly warned them against involvement in any Christian activities in the future. Some were forced to surrender property deeds as bond, in order to secure the steep bail demands.
The Marxist-slanted regime of President Isaias Afwerki banned all of Eritrea’s independent Protestant churches in May 2002, ordering their buildings closed and criminalizing any meetings for worship in private homes.
Eritrea’s ambassador to the United States claimed in a February 2005 radio broadcast over the Voice of America that Eritrea’s independent Protestants were “the Christian equivalent of al-Qaeda” and constituted a terrorist threat to the nation.
Although the government’s vicious crackdown initially targeted the country’s rapidly growing Pentecostal and charismatic congregations, overt interference in the internal affairs of the Orthodox church has also landed several priests and lay leaders in jail and resulted in the forcible replacement of the church’s elderly patriarch with a government appointee.
Since May 2002, only the Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran churches have been classified by the Eritrean government as “historic” Christian denominations and allowed to worship legally. Nearly half of the population are adherents of Islam.