Reports that the Eritrean government has released 27 Christian prisoners of faith raises hopes for the release of other church leaders who still remain behind bars, says Filmon Tesfai, a fugitive from Eritrea and missionary with Voice of the Martyrs (VoM) South Africa.
“These believers stayed from two to 16 years in prison without charge or court appearance. Mai Sirwa prison [where the prisoners were held] is notorious for its inhumane treatments and barbaric methods of interrogation. Though we celebrate their release, we must remember that they have only been released on bail, forced to provide title deeds or business licenses of their families,” said Tesfai who was jailed four times and tortured for his faith in Eritrea before escaping the country and joining his family in SA early last year.
The prisoners — 19 men and eight women — are believed to have been released from the prison close to the capital, Asmara, on September 3 and September 8. These developments follow the release of 22 Methodist prisoners — mainly women and children — from another Eritrean prison in July.
In 2002, the military dictatorship at the horn of Africa outlawed every religion except Sunni Islam, Eritrean Orthodox, Roman Catholicism and the Lutheran Church. Some 12% of the population have fled the country, according to UNHCR. Tens of thousands have risked drowning in an attempt to escape to Italy.
Estimates on the number of Christian prisoners of faith in Eritrea range from 300 to 3 000. Many are being held indefinitely under appalling conditions.
Commenting further on the latest prisoner releases in his home country, Tesfai said: “The rumour of their release has been circulating since the past month. Ever since the churches inside Eritrea have been involved in intensive prayer and fasting. This relatively promising development comes after more than a decade-long prayer. I am excited that they will be reunited with their families once again. The release of our brethren has created an atmosphere of hope for those church leaders still behind bars.
“Abducting believers from private prayer meetings or weddings and releasing them after years of prison without charge to rejoin the army is something that must stop. We need to continue to lift our prayers to the Lord for this new normal to change. I believe the time is approaching for the realisation of freedom of worship in Eritrea.”
Tesfai’s ministry focus in SA is to raise awareness of the persecution of the Church in Eritrea. Anybody who would like to invite him to speak at an event can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or WhatsApp him at +27 67 796 0848.
According to the Eritrean media, Adi Abeto prison, designed to hold 800, had 2 500 inmates, and 500 prisoners were forced to share only 20 toilets at Mai Serwa maximum-security prison. The authorities have previously shut down many Evangelical and Pentecostal churches and have kept the patriarch of the Orthodox Church under house arrest since January 2007 for resisting government interference in church affairs. Registered churches come under tight government control and Christians who worship in unregistered churches are regarded as enemies of the state. Some Christian prisoners are kept in shipping containers where they are exposed to the searing desert heat by day and cold by night. Some are beaten and tortured to try to force them to renounce their faith. Most Christian prisoners are believed to be Pentecostal or Evangelical and many have been held for more than a decade. The prison authorities ban praying aloud, singing, preaching or reading religious books. Eritrea’s constitution declares: “No person may be discriminated against on account of… religion.” But a UN human rights commission noted attacks on Protestants and Pentecostals were “part of a diligently planned policy of the government”.