By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent BosNewsLife with reports from the region
ASMARA, ERITREA (BosNewsLife)-- Eritrean Pastor Oqbamichel Haimanot, who was jailed for participating in a Christian wedding and leading "outlawed" evangelical churches, has been released after 11 years behind bars, his supporters told BosNewsLife.
The frail evangelical pastor was first jailed in 2003 for several weeks, according to Christians with close knowledge about the situation. Haimanot was detained again in 2005 along with two other pastors and sixty-four church members at a wedding ceremony in Barentu, in western Eritrea.
Authorities sent them to Eritrea's Sawa military training center -- a facility that rights activists claim is "renowned for its brutal treatment." Several Christians were later released after their families paid the demanded bail money, Christians said. However, military authorities refused to free Haimanot saying he is a key leader in "outlawed" evangelical churches.
The pastor, who leads the Kale Hiwot (Word of Life) Church, was released several months later after reportedly suffering a mental breakdown. Christians said at the time he faced "four months of physical and emotional mistreatment" at the military facility in Sawa.
Despite his emotional and physical difficulties, Pastor Haimanot was reportedly detained again in October 2007. He was held until his recent release, confirmed the Voice Of the Martyrs (VOM) advocacy group. VOM quoted its contacts in the area as saying that the pastor is in "need of medical care." No further details were immediately available, but VOM said it had urged Christians to "please pray" for the pastor's "healing and protection."
Pastor Haimanot is among many Christians facing persecution, imprisonment and even death in the Horn of Africa nation of nearly six million people, according to local Christians and rights groups.
"Many Christians are currently imprisoned for their faith and many others have been tortured to death in prison, or died for lack of medical attention and outright negligence by prison authorities," said well-informed advocacy group Open Doors.
"While the exact number of Christians currently imprisoned for their faith is unknown, thousands have been arrested and imprisoned over the years. We have reports of numerous believers being imprisoned for more than ten years."
In 2016, reports surfaced that at least three Christians died for their faith: two men died of hunger and thirst in Maitre prison, and a 28-year-old woman died in the same jail from untreated infection, the group recalled.
These and other incidents are believed to have continued last year. At least hundreds of Eritrean Christians are allegedly held in prisons, military confinement camps or shipping containers because of their faith.
Christians say that believers from non-traditional church groups, especially converts, face the harshest persecution from the government as well as cooperating officials of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and Muslim community.
The government’s fear of both radical Islam and Christian evangelicalism has also led to the end of virtually all international work among non-governmental organizations and restricted entry for expatriate Christian workers, according to Open Doors investigators.
"Both the government and the cultural climate in Eritrea contribute to the persecution of Christians in this country in the Horn of Africa," Open Doors said in a recent assessment.
Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki, in power since the early 1990s, and his government have denied wrongdoing or the existence of prisoners of conscience. Open Doors disagrees. "President Afewerki’s regime is known for absolute authoritarianism. The arrest, harassment, and murder of Christians accused of being agents of the West are commonplace."
Muslims, who make up roughly half of the population, are becoming more radicalized, resulting in increased vulnerability for Christians living in their vicinity, the group added. "Conversion to Christianity is seen as a complete betrayal of community, family and the Islamic faith and brings on severe persecution."