Eritrea flag
Christians detained Google

There is mixed news from Eritrea, where the authorities have been arresting more Christians and releasing some others.

Police arrested 30 Christians who had gathered to worship in a home in the town of Keren, 60 miles northwest of the capital, Asmara. The raid took place last week.

Nine other Christian prisoners have been released. Four were set free from Mai Serwa prison last week. Most of them had served sentences of more than nine years.

Five other prisoners were released from the town of Assab, on the coast near the border with Djibouti. They include female house church pastor Abenet Yemane.

Abenet has been in and out of prison for the past 20 years for continuing steadfastly in her faith and her calling.

21 years

eritrea map

This year, Christians in Eritrea mark 21 years of state persecution. The East African dictatorship shut down most of its churches in May 2002, outlawing every religion except Sunni Islam, Eritrean Orthodox, Roman Catholicism and the Lutheran Church.

Estimates vary as to the number of prisoners of faith in Eritrea. Release International’s partner Dr Berhane Asmelash estimates there are more than 400.

‘Eritrea is like a giant prison,’ says Dr Asmelash. ‘The country is filled with jails. It is like North Korea.’

The government has closed many Evangelical and Pentecostal churches. And even registered churches come under tight control.


Christians who continue to worship in banned congregations are regarded as enemies of the state. And believers in the armed services caught practising their faith face imprisonment.

‘Christians are the most persecuted group. It is because they won’t stop gathering and won’t stop worshipping,’ says Dr Berhane. ‘It is beyond the government’s control.’

Most Christian prisoners are believed to be Pentecostal or Evangelical. Many are detained indefinitely and have been held for more than a decade, often without charge at locations kept secret from their families. The authorities refuse to release records.


Mai Serwa Google
Mai Serwa prison, Google

Some Christian prisoners have been kept in shipping containers, exposed to searing heat by day and freezing cold by night. Some are beaten and tortured to try to force them to renounce their faith.

The prison authorities ban praying aloud, singing, preaching or reading religious books.

Sometimes prisoners are tied up and hanged from trees. One form of hanging is known as the Jesus Christ, because it looks like a crucifix.

Christianity growing

The totalitarian government in Eritrea exercises rigid control over its citizens. Around a fifth of the population has fled. Tens of thousands risk death from drowning to escape to Italy. Many head eventually to the UK, which grants asylum to 70 per cent of Eritreans who apply.

Yet despite the exodus due to hardship and persecution, ‘Christianity has continued to grow in Eritrea,’ says Dr Berhane.

Eritrea broke free from Ethiopia in 1991 after a 30-year war for independence. Since 1993 the country has been ruled by a dictatorship, under the authoritarian president Isaias Afwerki and his party, the Popular Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ).

Christianity took root in the region in the 4th century. Today, Eritrea is usually considered evenly split between Muslims and Christians, although Pew Research estimates almost 63 per cent to be Christian.


Most Christians are members of the state-controlled Eritrean Orthodox Church, whose Patriarch was placed under house arrest and replaced by an Eritrean government appointee. The Eritrean Orthodox Church often regards evangelicals with suspicion.

USCIRF Eritrea

According to The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom ‘Eritrea continues to have one of the worst religious freedom records in Africa.’

‘Freedom of faith is the cornerstone of all human freedoms,’ says Release International CEO Paul Robinson. ‘Release International continues to call on Eritrea to set free every Christian prisoner and permit full freedom of faith once again in their country.’

UK-based Release International is active in around 30 countries. It works through partners to prayerfully, pastorally, and practically support the families of Christian martyrs, prisoners of faith and their families, as well as Christians suffering oppression and violence, and Christians forced to flee.