Minority Christians in Eritrea face extreme persecution say rights groups

(Photo: Reuters / Nir Elias)Hrity, a migrant from Eritrea, covers her face as she poses for a photograph in the central city of Lod, near Tel Aviv April 9, 2012. Some 60,000 African migrants fleeing authoritarian rule in Eritrea and fighting in neighbouring Sudan and what is now South Sudan have crossed illegally into Israel across the relatively porous desert border with Egypt. Picture taken April 9, 2012.

A Christian leader in Eritrea says that religious persecution in the northeast African country "is at its highest level ever and getting worse," World Watch Monitor (WWM), the news outlet of Open Doors, a Christian charity reports.

WWM reports the stories of Christians around the world under pressure for their faith.

It indicated that the leader's name would not be used because of security reasons.

The total number of Christians arrested in Eritrea this year has risen to 191 after the detention of 37 students from the College of Arts and Sciences Adi Kihe and five men from the Church of the Living God in Asmara, according to WWM.

Up to 3,000 Christians are imprisoned because of their faith in Eritrea.

Open Doors ranks the country 10th on its World Watch List and gives it the designation of "extreme persecution" on its scale.

Voice of the Martyrs (VOM) say many prisoners are held in metal shipping containers without ventilation or toilet facilities.

Eritrea allowed religious freedom until 2002, when the government announced it would only recognize religious groups: Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church of Eritrea, and the Lutheran-affiliated Evangelical Church of Eritrea, said VOM.

Since then, it says the Eritrean government has jailed, tortured and jailed numerous Eritreans for political and religious reasons.

As a result, Eritrea has been called "the North Korea of Africa".

Selem Kidane, an Eritrean expatriate and director of Release Eritrea, a UK-based human rights organization, said that while persecution is not limited to Christians, it is the underground church which is suffering the most.

"Any religion that is not willing to come under the control of the government is being persecuted," she said."It's not just confined to Christians."

"But in terms of being completely banned, it's the minority churches that have suffered the most - the Pentecostal church, the Evangelical church - they are the ones who have been stigmatized and been accused of all sorts of things by their communities and other faith groups."

There are 2.5 million Christians in Eritrea, mostly Orthodox, according to World Watch List.

The human rights advocacy organization Amnesty International issued a report earlier in May that backed up the claims of the maltreatment of dissenters in Eritrea.

It said that there is "rampant repression" in the country 20 years after it split from Ethiopia and became independent.

"The government has systematically used arbitrary arrest and detention without charge to crush all opposition, to silence all dissent, and to punish anyone who refuses to comply with the repressive restrictions it places on people's lives," said Claire Beston, Amnesty International's Eritrea researcher.

The Amnesty International report, entitled "Twenty Years of Independence, but Still No Freedom", says that journalists, people practicing an unregistered religion, and people trying to flee the country are detained and held in unimaginably atrocious conditions.

A report by International Christian Concern (ICC) indicated that Christians who try to flee have been kidnapped by human traffickers.

The ICC report said that "these vulnerable Christians are attacked and kidnapped from refugee camps, then transported to the Sinai desert, where they are sold like commodities."

The victims are tortured and their agony relayed by phone to families back in Eritrea or Diaspora groups in order to elicit ransom. If the ransom is not paid, the victims or tortured to death, including by removing saleable organs, said ICC.

Even if the ransoms are paid, human traffickers may sell their victims to other criminal groups.

Amnesty International has appealed to Egypt and Sudan to stop the kidnappings of refugees in Sudan and their transport to Egypt. In addition, Eritrean opposition groups are demanding increased security at the camps.

The chairman of the Ethiopia-based Eritrean Democratic Alliance, Tewelde Gebresilase, said on the ICC website that human trafficking is being carried out by a highly organized network.

He said it is a highly lucrative business for Bedouins and for Egyptian, Sudanese and Eritrean officials, who take bribes to facilitate the trade and it is a major source of income for the Eritrean regime.

Despite reports and attempts at international intervention, the government claims no one is persecuted in Eritrea and rejected the Amnesty International report as "wild accusations" and "totally unsubstantiated."

VOM says on its website that a religious liberty report indicated that Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki wants to restrict the right to assembly.

He fears religious freedom because it may lead to evangelism by Christians, which he believes in turn will lead to social tensions that will assist outside groups in destabilizing the nation.

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