In March, police in Eritrea arrested the pastor of a Full Gospel church on a busy boulevard in the capital city of Asmara. In his mid-50s and married with four children, Kidane Weldu was neither charged nor allowed outside contact.

"He is held incommunicado in the second police station in Asmara and is at risk of torture," according to an Amnesty International report. "Amnesty International considers him a prisoner of conscience, detained solely for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of religion."

Compass Direct reports that Weldu is one of 16 pastors and 883 Christians overall in the East African nation jailed for their faith. The Eritrean government—while claiming that it allows freedom of religion—has stepped up its arrests of Christians this year after outlawing independent churches in 2002. Security forces have jailed at least 240 Christians this year.

Many of those arrested are held in metal shipping containers. Sweltering in the daytime and cold at night, the containers have no sanitation. Infectious diseases and diarrhea are common.

In November of last year, the government also began arresting members of Roman Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran churches, as well as those in a renewal movement in the officially recognized Eritrean Orthodox church—the only legal faiths other than Islam.

Since May 2002 the government has denied or indefinitely prolonged church registration applications. It has also forbidden members from worshiping privately in their homes. Rights organizations report Eritrean authorities torture Christians to try to force them to recant or stop practicing their faith.

Why the crackdown? Historically rooted in Marxist ideology, the government says evangelicals are unpatriotic, foreign, and disrupt national unity. But Berhane Asmelash of U.K.-based advocacy group Release Eritrea says the sole legal political party ruling the country has grown wary of evangelical growth.

"By persecuting believers and closing churches," Asmelash says, "the government is carrying out its longstanding anti-religious ambitions."

About 48 percent of the country's 4.4 million people are Sunni Muslim, 41 percent are Eritrean Orthodox, and 4 percent are Catholic. Evangelicals amount to about 3.3 percent of the population.

Last September the U.S. State Department for the first time named Eritrea a "country of particular concern" (CPC) for severe violations of religious freedom. "There were numerous reports of physical torture and attempts at forced recantations," the State Department reported. "[Church] closures, the government's refusal to authorize any registrations, and the restriction on holding religious meetings continued."

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Suggested Action

Designation of Eritrea as a CPC required the Bush administration to take specific policy action by March 15, which did not happen.

The International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 allows for a 90-day extension for the President to take action, such as economic sanctions. Write congressional representatives and the State Department urging the administration to do so: Condoleezza Rice, U.S. Department of State, 2201 C Street NW, Washington, D.C., 20520.

Release Eritrea's Asmelash also says Christians should urge the U.S. government to pressure the Eritrean government to allow international observers—such as the International Red Cross and U.N. and U.S. delegations—to visit prisons.

Article 19 of the Eritrean constitution allows for freedom of religion and assembly. Human-rights organizations suggest noting this when writing Eritrean officials. Politely expressing your deep concern about the harsh treatment of Christians, also point out that Article 17 of the Eritrean constitution stipulates the right to a fair and public trial and the presumption of innocence.

His Excellency Mr. Girma Asmerom
Embassy of Eritrea
1708 New Hampshire Ave. NW
Washington, D.C., 20009
Fax: 202.319.1304

Mr. Isaias Afwerki
President of Eritrea
P.O. Box 257
Asmara, Eritrea

Pray for an end to the repression, release of those held captive, and reconciliation among Eritrea's various churches.

Related Elsewhere:

More Christianity Today articles on Eritrea include:

Jailed for Christ | Government harasses churches in Eritrea (May 20, 2004)
Protestants Face Police Crackdown | In four cities, security forces arrest 170 Protestant Christians. (May 16, 2003)
Eritrean Government Closes Churches | All Christian houses of worship are ordered shut without official explanation. (July 18, 2002)

Previous Bearing the Cross articles include:

Iraq—March 2005

Saudi Arabia—December 2004

Pakistan—October 2004

Iran—July 2004

Vietnam—April 2004

China—January 2004

North Korea—July 2003

Indonesia—April 2003

Nigeria—Feb. 2003

Egypt—Dec. 2002

Cuba—Oct. 2002

Turkmenistan—Aug. 2002

India—June 2002

Saudi Arabia—April 2002

Iran—March 2002

Vietnam—January 2002

Pakistan—Nov 2001

Laos—Oct, 2001

North Korea—Aug. 2001

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