Friday, April 11, 2003

Eritrea: severe persecution of Protestants.

Date: Friday 11 April 2003
Subj: Eritrea: severe persecution of Protestants.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty E-mail Conference
From: Elizabeth Kendal, Conference Moderator


The following report from Compass Direct gives shocking detail of the severe persecution - that includes harassment, imprisonment, humiliation, beatings, torture and threat of execution - being meted out to Eritrean Protestants over recent months.

On 30 May 2002, the WEA RLC reported that Eritrean government had officially closed all churches other than the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Mekane Yesus (Evangelical Lutheran) denominations. As the WEA RLC report noted, the crackdown came as a surprise. The Compass report below, supports the speculation that the crackdown could be the result of pressure from the Orthodox Church. A evangelical revival movement has blossomed from within the Orthodox Church, and evangelical Protestants in the community have grown in faith and number.

The problems of Eritrean believers are compounded by the fact that they are incredibly isolated. In September 2001 the Eritrean government closed down all private media. The government then rounded up its critics - members of parliament, senior government officials and independent journalists - and silenced them. They are allegedly kept in undisclosed places of detention. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) says that foreign journalists cannot operate freely in Eritrea either. As such, victims of government oppression and human rights abuses in Eritrea have no voice. In such a situation there is concern that the cost of information might be high -- but then the cost of silence might be higher. This situation requires urgent prayer (advocacy to the highest authority).

- Elizabeth Kendal

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FLASH NEWS from COMPASS DIRECT
Global News from the Frontlines
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ERITREA JAILS 170 PROTESTANT CHRISTIANS
Another 74 Still Held in Military Prison
Special to Compass

Summary:

ASMARA, Eritrea, April 9 (Compass) -- A total of 170 Protestant
Christians have been jailed, beaten and threatened with death by
Eritrean security forces in a harsh crackdown during February and
March. In five separate incidents, police barged into worship
services and a wedding ceremony to jail men, women and children for
practicing what government officials called "a new religion."
Although no formal charges were filed against them, the jailed
Protestants were held in cramped, suffocating cells for up to two
weeks for refusing to return to the historically dominant Orthodox
Church faith. One group of detainees endured 15 days in metal
containers designed as severe punishment cells. Another congregation
witnessed its pastor being tortured and humiliated in the jail yard.
When relatives posted bail for their release, they were forced to
sign a statement acknowledging that if a bailed prisoner was caught
meeting in public or private with more than three others, he would
be liable for execution.

-----------------------

Full Story:

ASMARA, Eritrea, April 9 (Compass) -- A total of 170 Protestant
Christians have been jailed, beaten and threatened with death by
Eritrean security forces in a harsh crackdown during February and
March.

Since the Asmara government closed 12 Pentecostal and charismatic
churches last May, the tiny nation along the eastern tip of Africa
has stalled official registration status for all of these young
Protestant churches, now containing more than 20,000 believers.

In five separate incidents in four cities over the past two months,
Eritrean security police barged into worship services and even a
wedding ceremony to jail men, women and children for practicing what
government officials called "a new religion."

All the prisoners were held incommunicado while under arrest. They
were eventually released individually on bail to relatives or
friends, who were forced to put up their personal property as bond
to secure their release. No formal charges were filed against them,
nor did they ever appear before a court of law.

The Eritrean government recognizes only four "official" religions,
identified as Orthodox Christian (40 percent), Muslim (50 percent),
Catholic (5 percent) and Evangelical Christian, a Protestant church
begun in the late 19th century by Swedish Lutheran missionaries, (2
percent).

The jailed Protestants, who were detained in humiliating conditions
from three to 15 days, were subjected to repeated beatings, cursing
and threats for refusing to return to the historically dominant
Orthodox Church faith.

In the first incident on February 16, seventeen members of the Rema
Church in Adi-Quala, 70 miles south of the capital Asmara, were
arrested by security police while holding Sunday worship in a
member's home. All were jailed for 15 days, including the widow
hosting the gathering and three other older women. Some of the
prisoners were reportedly beaten with sticks.

Two weeks later, security police raided a rented hall during a
wedding ceremony for a young Pentecostal couple in the coastal city
of Massawa. The church leader conducting the March 2 marriage
service was arrested after the ceremony concluded and jailed for
five days.

The following week, 36 members of the Full Gospel Church were
arrested for three days when they gathered in a member's home in
Keren, a Muslim-dominated town 55 miles northwest of Asmara. Local
police claimed that Muslims in the neighborhood had complained to
them about the March 9 gathering. The imprisoned congregation
included 16 women and seven soldiers. The soldiers received severe
beatings and hard labor punishments when sent back to military duty.

On March 16, seventy-two members of three congregations in Asmara
were arrested during a prayer and preaching service in a member's
home in the Setanta Otoo district of the capital. Police jailed the
worshippers from the Kale Hiwot Church, the Full Gospel Church and
the Rema Church in metal container cells at the Maiserwa Military
Prison near Keren. Although most of the prisoners were young people,
a Rema Church elder in his 60's was among them.

Designed as severe punishment cells, the metal containers had no
windows and only a small door, subjecting the prisoners to near
suffocation and intense physical discomfort. After 15 days, security
police allowed families to "bail" their jailed relatives, issuing a
stern warning to them that the Pentecostal believers must never
again try to meet for worship or evangelize anyone, anywhere.

In the last reported incident on March 23, members of Asmara's
Philadelphia Church were meeting for choir practice and Bible study
on Sunday afternoon when some 15 policemen armed with machine guns,
pistols and long sticks entered the premises. The 40 people present,
three of them children, were taken by bus to Police Station No. 4 in
the Paradiso district, where officers reportedly kicked and beat
some of the men.

When the church's pastor learned about the arrests several hours
later, he took three other church members with him to inquire at the
police station. All four were promptly arrested as well, with the
pastor isolated from the rest of his congregation.

The morning after his arrest, the pastor was brought out into the
prison courtyard and publicly tortured and humiliated in front of
his jailed congregation. Guards forced the pastor, who limps
noticeably from having polio as a child, to take off his shoes and
walk barefoot over sharp, jagged pebbles for a half hour. Although
his feet did not bleed, it was "very, very painful," one source
confirmed to Compass.

That same morning, the three children who had been separated from
the rest of the group were beaten and released, with strict warnings
to "never again" attend such religious meetings.

The Philadelphia Church prisoners were crammed into two cells,
segregating the men and women. One local source said there was
barely room in the men's cell for all of them to lie down to sleep
at night. "We were told to relieve ourselves in the cell, but there
was no place for that," the source said. "The cell was filthy and
very hot, and we were suffocating to get air, a witness said. The
cells were kept locked all day except for a half-hour at 5 a.m. when
prisoners were allowed out to go to the toilet.

The detained church members were later transferred to the Adi Abito
Military Prison outside Asmara, away from their pastor. Although
military guards told them that their pastor had denied his beliefs
and promised to return to the Orthodox Church, the congregation all
refused to believe it. "Anyway, Jesus is our Savior too, not just
our pastor's," they reportedly told the guards. "We will not deny
Him."

After eight days in jail, the pastor and most of his congregation
were released on bail. Relatives who guaranteed bail for them were
forced to sign a statement acknowledging that if a bailed prisoner
was caught meeting at the church building or even in his home with
more than three others, he would be liable for execution.

74 SOLDIERS MARK 13 MONTHS IN MILITARY PRISON

In a separate incident, 74 Eritrean soldiers from various
Pentecostal congregations incarcerated more than a year ago remain
jailed at hard labor in a military prison near the southern port
city of Assab for refusing to recant their personal religious
beliefs and return to the Orthodox Church.

The soldiers, 13 of them women, were first arrested on February 17
last year, along with 59 civilians from three local congregations
gathered for Sunday worship. All 133 worshippers were released the
following day, but two weeks later, military authorities re-arrested
the soldiers and incarcerated them at the Zone Four Military Prison
near Assab.

About 10 weeks after they were jailed, prison authorities put the
Pentecostal soldiers in solitary confinement in very small,
unlighted cells. For weeks, they were dragged out repeatedly to be
beaten all over their bodies with iron rods encased in plastic. "It
was very hurtful, and we bled terribly from these beatings," one of
the flogged soldiers managed to inform a source. "This was done in
front of the others, while our tormentors demanded that we deny our
faith in Jesus."

Reportedly, several more soldiers "caught" reading their Bibles or
praying in small groups in recent months have been arrested and
jailed with the original 74 soldiers.

Families and friends of the jailed soldiers, who range from their
early 20s to 40 years of age, have been refused any contact with
them over the past 13 months. Several are married with families.

Although the 1997 Constitution of Eritrea guarantees religious
freedom to all citizens, Eritrea's totalitarian government has
become increasingly restrictive against the newer Protestant
churches mushrooming across the country within the past five years.
Many are led by former members of the Medhanie Alam renewal movement
begun a decade ago within the Eritrean Orthodox Church.

Hundreds of these Christians and their spiritual leaders,
excommunicated from the Orthodox Church in 1997, flowed into
existing Pentecostal churches. Others began their own local
fellowships.

Section Four of Article 19 of the 1997 Eritrean Constitution
guarantees that "Every person shall have the freedom to practice any
religion and to manifest such practice." However, representatives of
the government's Religious Affairs Department are now insisting that
in order to enjoy legal status, religious groups must "conform to
local traditions."

Last May, the Department of Religious Affairs ordered the
Pentecostal and charismatic congregations, as well as the
Seventh-day Adventist Church, Buddhists and the Bahai religious
movement, to complete a wide-ranging application process. Until
their registration process was completed, the government decreed,
these churches and groups were prohibited from meeting.

Among the requirements were audited financial reports for the past
10 years; a list of every member's address, contact information and
personal property; names and passport numbers of every foreign
visitor; financial dealings with all international sponsors; and a
listing of which theological doctrines it holds in comparison with
other churches' beliefs.

Eleven months later, the closed churches still have no answer from
their government. When church leaders met with the newly appointed
director of Religious Affairs on April 1 to press for a response, he
declared that he was uninformed on the issue and would have to get
back to them later about it.

"They are cheating us by always postponing our meetings about this,
changing the director of the department, and claiming our
registrations are 'in process,'" one church leader declared last
week. "We have waited now for 11 months. Our government must act
seriously, to reply to us in a responsible way."

END

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Copyright 2003 Compass Direct

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Thursday, April 3, 2003

Iraq: Christians face uncertain future.

Date: Thursday 3 April 2003
Subj: Iraq: Christians face uncertain future.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty E-mail Conference
From: Elizabeth Kendal, Conference Moderator


The purpose of this posting is to bring to your attention a very interesting and important article.

"Iraq: Christian Community Faces Uncertain Future In Postwar Era"
By Jean-Christophe Peuch, Prague, 2 April 2003
Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty (RFE/RL)

The summary introduction states, "Since the U.S.-led war on Iraq started two weeks ago, much attention has been devoted to the demands and expectations of the country's Shia Muslims, Kurds, and Turkomans. But little has been said about Iraq's Christians, the majority of them known as Assyrians and Chaldeans. RFE/RL takes a closer look at the hopes and fears of this group, whose history is intrinsically linked with that of ancient Mesopotamia."

In the RFE/RL article, the author Jean-Christophe Peuch quotes Joseph Yacoub, a teacher of political science at the French-based Lyon Catholic University. Yacoub, an expert on ethnic and religious minorities, expresses his concern that the worst is yet to come for Iraq's Christian community. "Especially for Iraq's Christian community," he says, "this war is a looming threat because of the confusion that might arise and lead to the perception that a Christian West is fighting a Muslim East. Consequently, there is a risk that Iraq's Christian community might become a scapegoat."

Peuch then gives several examples of how this perception (that this is a religious war) is being unwittingly cultivated by Western political figures.

Of greatest concern is the issue of the draft constitution being proposed for a post-Saddam Iraq.

PROPOSED NEW CONSTITUTION IS ISLAMIC

(Excerpts from the RFE/RL article.)
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In the lead-up to the war, meetings have taken place in London between officials of the Bush administration and the Iraqi National Congress (INC), a U.S.-sponsored umbrella organization of groups in opposition to the Baghdad regime.

These meetings notably examined several draft constitutions for a post-Saddam Iraq, which Assyro-Chaldeans -- represented at the talks by the Kurdish-based Assyrian Democratic Movement -- say are detrimental to their community.

AACF (Association of France's Assyro-Chaldeans) leader Adlun said the outcome of a 13-16 December INC conference in London raised serious concerns among Assyro-Chaldeans. "Several draft constitutions were presented [at this meeting], some of them emphasizing Iraq's Arabic and Muslim character. We, of course, disagree with such a wording. What we want is a democratic and secular country. These draft constitutions remain on the table today, and nothing has been decided," Adlun said.

In a letter sent to Bush on 13 January, nine Western European-based Assyro-Chaldean associations expressed their concern at the possibility of post-Saddam Iraq being governed by Shariah, or Islamic law.

"In the draft constitution that was presented at the London conference, the reference to Islam is much stronger than in today's Iraqi Constitution. This was done under the influence of some Shia and Kurdish opposition groups. The current Iraqi Constitution says Islam is the religion of the state but nothing more. There is nothing in there that says Shariah is the root of the existing
legislation, while the text that was presented [in London] is clearly Islamic. It describes Shariah as the source of tomorrow's legal norms, and the least we can say is that it raises concerns," Religious minorities expert Yacoub said.

Assyro-Chaldeans argue that they are underrepresented in opposition meetings and fear they might be equally underrepresented in Iraq's future parliament.

In addition, as AACF leader Adlun pointed out, recent U.S.-sponsored opposition talks in London and Ankara have so far failed to take the large Christian communities of Baghdad and Basra into account.

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- Elizabeth Kendal