Eritrean military authorities jailed 75 Protestant Christians last week at the Sawa Military Training Camp for "reading Bibles and praying during their free time," local sources in the small East Africa nation confirmed.
Most of the newly arrested evangelicals, 37 of them women, are student youths doing their compulsory national military service at Sawa, a remote center near Eritrea's mountainous western border with Sudan.
According to confirmed reports, the 75 young conscripts put under "military detention and punishment" had not attempted to conduct any Christian meeting at Sawa or committed any other transgression of military law.
"In Sawa, to possess your own Bible and keep your personal devotion and loyalty to Christ is not allowed," an Eritrean Christian told Compass. "This is considered an act of Christian extremism."
Muslim conscripts, however, are allowed to have their own copy of the Quran and perform their prayers five times a day.
Since May 2002, the repressive regime of President Isaias Afwerki has closed down all independent evangelical churches and refused to allow their members to meet anywhere for worship.
Although ordered to apply for legal registration, none of these churches have been granted government recognition. Evangelical believers caught by the police while gathering in their homes are arrested and detained, often held incommunicado for months without charges.
Nearly 1,800 Eritrean Christians are now believed to be under arrest because of their religious beliefs, held in police stations, military camps and prisons in 12 known locations across Eritrea. Among them are 28 clergymen.
The jailed Protestants are routinely subjected to physical beatings and severe psychological pressure to deny their religious beliefs. Police and military authorities continue to demand that the prisoners return to one of the three "official" Christian denominations recognized by the government.
But even those legally recognized denominations - the nation's historic Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran churches - have come under government disfavor over the past year, incurring threats and even jailings by security police officials.
Two days ago Eritrean Information Minister Ali Abdu confirmed to Agence France-Presse that Eritrean Orthodox Patriarch Abune Antonios had been "removed" from his post, allegedly by a decision of the church's Holy Synod made earlier in January (See Compass Direct, "Eritrean Government Formally Sacks Orthodox Patriarch," January 18).
"The government has nothing to do with that decision," Abdu insisted on January 31, declaring that it was reached in an "internal meeting" of the church.
Patriarch Antonios had been stripped of his ecclesiastical authority last August and put under house arrest. Since then, in direct violation of church canons, the church's Holy Synod has been controlled by a government-appointed lay administrator.
The patriarch reportedly fell out of favor with the government for opposing the arrest of three Orthodox priests from his church's Medhane Alem renewal movement. The three clergymen remain jailed without charges.
Patriarch Antonios promptly rejected his dismissal in a letter dated January 14, the day after he was notified in writing that he had been removed from his position. Smuggled out of Asmara and posted on the Asmarino Independent News website last week, the patriarch's response declared the synod's decision to be "illegal" and based on false accusations.
The 78-year-old prelate went on to demand that the abbots and theologians of the church be convened to resolve the matter according to canon law. He also appealed to Egypt's Coptic Orthodox Church, under which the Eritrean Orthodox Church had received its apostolic mandate, to arbitrate the dispute.
Copyright 2006 Compass Direct