By BosNewsLife Senior Special Correspondent Eric Leijenaar and BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
ASMARA, ERITREA (BosNewsLife)-- At least two detained Christians have died this month in Eritrea after a "long period of torture" in a notorious military prison camp, while the number of Christians jailed in the African nation because of their faith approaches 3,000, a well-informed Christian rights group said Wednesday, January 21.
Netherlands-based Open Doors, which has close contacts with reportedly persecuted Christians in Eritrea and around the world, identified the two men as Mogos Hagos Kiflom, 37, and Mehari Gebreneguse Asgedom, 42.
Asgedom, a member of the evangelical in Mendefera, reportedly died Friday, January 16, of torture and complications from diabetes. His death came after fellow Christian Kiflom was said to have died as a result of torture he endured for refusing to recant his faith, Open Doors said.
The exact date of his death was unknown. Authorities have apparently refused to give more details or to allow an independent autopsy. "The two died in the Mitire-Camp; Asgedom died in an isolation jail," Open Doors told BosNewsLife.
The Mitire Camp, located in north-west Eritrea, is a "new military concentration camp" notorious for abuses, the advocacy group said. It was reportedly set up especially for accommodating Christians. The two Christians passed away shortly Open Doors told BosNewsLife earlier that in October Teklesenbet Gebreab Kiflom, 36, died while imprisoned for his faith at the Wi’a Military Confinement center. He was reported to have died after prison commanders refused to give him medical attention for .
Eritrean church leaders in comments released by Open Doors said 2907 Christians are now known to be detained in Eritrea, up from roughly 2,000 reported last year.
Most of those detained are described as "Bible-believing Christians" who are active in evangelical and Protestant movements, Open Doors said.
Advocacy groups claim many have been held in military camps, as well as shipping containers, police stations and other facilities.
Since May 2002 only the Eritrese Orthodoxe Church, the Roman Catholic and Lutheran Churches are allowed as part of government efforts to crackdown on Christian activities,
several advocacy groups said.
Even within those churches leaders have complained off harassment: In 2006, the government removed Orthodox Patriarch Abune Antonios from office.
Human rights group Amnesty International attributed his removal to his criticism of alleged state interference in church activities, including a crackdown on several evangelical Christian movements popular with some young Eritreans.
The government of autocratic President Isaias Afewerki has dismissed the allegations, saying it was an internal Church matter. Eritrea also condemned human rights organizations and the United States, who regularly accuse authorities here of religious persecution, especially against unregistered evangelical congregations.
"The government severely restricts freedom of religion for groups that it has not registered and infringes upon the independence of some registered groups," the United States State Department said in a recent report.
It also said the Eritrean government continues to "harass, arrest, and detain members of unregistered minority religious groups" while seeking "greater control over the four approved religious groups."
Eritrea's Government allegedly also "failed to register religious groups, and it restricted religious meetings and arrested individuals during religious gatherings." In addition, it detained people refusing to serve in the military for religious reasons, the State Department said.
And, US officials cited "reports of forced recantations of faith and torture of religious detainees, who were held in harsh conditions." Asmara has denounced such reports as "fabrications" and "childish plots by colonialists" using religious issues to "create division and conflict" in a bid to weaken the country. However rights groups point out that independent Christian and other religious groups are often viewed as a threat by autocratic regimes wanting to control people's believes and ideas.
The controversy comes at a time when President Afewerki is criticized for allegedly failing to implement other democratic reforms, as his government has clamped down on critics and closed private press.
Eritrea has been ruled for many years by Isaias Afewerki, who was elected president by the national assembly in 1993. New presidential elections, planned for 1997, never materialised. The East African nation is a one-party state, with the ruling People's Front for Democracy and Justice the only party allowed to operate.