By BosNewsLife Africa Service with reporting by BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
ASMARA, ERITREA (BosNewsLife)-- Christians have been detained in Eritrea this month as part of a massive government crackdown on members of unregistered churches, well-informed rights activists have told BosNewsLife.
In one incident, six men and four women were reportedly captured in a raid on a prayer meeting in the north eastern town of Ghinda. They are being held at the local police station, where they reportedly lack food, said advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).
During the same period, an unspecified number of Christians were apparently taken from their homes in Adi Quala in the southern part of the country in raids that are reportedly still ongoing.
CSW told BosNewsLife that it has also been informed that officials of local authorities, security services and the Orthodox Church in the capital Asmara are going house to house asking occupants about their faith.
"The Eritrean government is one of the most repressive in the world. Thousands of prisoners of conscience of all faiths and none are detained arbitrarily and indefinitely in an extensive network of detention facilities where conditions can be life threatening and torture is a regular occurrence," CSW added in a statement.
Those incarcerated in Eritrea, seen by critics as "Africa's North Korea", include hundreds of especially devoted Christians. They were detained in a crackdown that has been ongoing since May 2002, when the government effectively outlawed faith practises not affiliated with the registered Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran or Orthodox Christian denominations and Sunni Islam.
However, devoted and active members of authorized religious groups also face repression, several Christians and rights groups say. In a move that began in 2006, the legitimate patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Abune Antonios, was removed from office and replaced in what church observers view as a violation of cannon law.
"He remains incommunicado under house arrest despite reports emanating from Eritrea during August 2016 that indicated his release was imminent," CSW complained.
The government is in effective control of the church’s resources, and clergy and laypersons deemed loyal to the legitimate patriarch have reported harassment, mistreatment and indefinite detention.
Reports are only just emerging of the arrests in October 2016 of six men and women in Adi Segdo on the outskirts of Asmara, who were apparently detained while visiting a sick man at home. The detainees, including members of the man’s family, were held for two months, Christians said.
Activists said they also learned about the arrests of eight Christians, including a mother and her three year-old child, after they gathered in a rural area around 4 kilometers (2,5 miles) north of Asmara in August 2016. Months earlier, in May, 79 men, women and children, including a mother and baby, were reportedly rounded up during a wedding party in May 2016.
They were initially incarcerated in the areas of Barentu and Agordat and at least over 30 believers are still held in Mai Sirwa detention camp, according to activists familiar with the situation.
“It is sobering to reflect that these arrests form part of an unrelenting campaign of harassment and persecution that has been ongoing since 2002, and which also targets authorized faith groups,"
said CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas.
"As we mark the 15th anniversary of the beginning of this crackdown, the arrests underscore the fact that the situation for freedom of religion or belief in Eritrea has in no way improved," he added.
In its June 2016 report, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on human rights in Eritrea (COIE) found “reasonable grounds to believe” that crimes against humanity were committed by state officials in a “widespread and systematic manner” since 1991, including the crime of persecution.
Activists of the British Orthodox Church and groups such as Church in Chains (Ireland), Human Rights Concern Eritrea, Release Eritrea, and the Medhanie Alem Eritrean Orthodox Church held what they called a "Protest Vigil" outside the Eritrean Embassy in London in commemoration of the church closures and to call for the freedom of all of the country’s prisoners of conscience.
"We urge the international community to hold the Eritrean government to account for the crimes it continues to commit against its citizen, and to maintain pressure on the regime until every prisoner of conscience is freed without precondition,” Thomas said.
Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki, in power since the early 1990s, and his government have denied wrongdoing or the existence of prisoners of conscience.
However rights group Amnesty International says Eritrea is now considered "one of the most oppressive and isolated dictatorships in the world" adding that the "situation there is comparable to that of North Korea."
It's difficult to report on human rights abuses in the religiously divided nation of nearly 6 million people. The 'Journalists without Borders' group graded Eritrea as the most dangerous nation for journalists.