The Eritrean authorities have arrested 15 Christians in raids on their houses in the capital Asmara. All have previously been imprisoned for their faith – some for up to 16 years.
In an earlier raid, police rearrested two elderly pastors.
This latest wave of arrests puts paid to any prospect of a softening of policy towards Christian prisoners in Eritrea after a number were recently released.
The East African dictatorship shut down most of its churches in 2002, often detaining Christians indefinitely in harsh conditions. Some have been packed into shipping containers in the heat of the desert and tortured to try to force them to renounce their faith.
These latest arrests swept up men and women aged from their late 20s to their 60s, who were members of different churches. Some have already served up to 16 years behind bars.
Most have already served sentences of between five and six years. They were released last summer, but rearrested following the discovery of a list of Christian contacts.
They have all been taken to Mai Serwa maximum-security prison in the capital.
In July, the authorities re-arrested two elderly pastors, Girmay Araia and Samuel Gebrewleldi.
Both are in their 70s and leaders in the Full Gospel Church of Eritrea. No reason has been given for their arrest. They are being held in Asmara’s Second Police Station.
It is estimated that there are now some 160 Christian prisoners in Eritrea.
UK-based Release International is supporting Christian refugees from Eritrea. ‘There was lots of good news last year when some Christians were set free,’ says Release partner, Dr Berhane Asmelash. ‘We live in hope, but the government has yet to change its policy. We have been here before.’
Many Christians have fled the country, often to neighbouring Ethiopia. Recently hundreds have been at risk of becoming caught up in the conflict between Tigrayan forces and soldiers from Ethiopia and Eritrea, who are fighting them.
The Tigrayan conflict threatened to envelop two refugee camps, Mai-Aini and Adi Harush. On one side of the camps, the Tekeze Bridge was destroyed, cutting the refugees off from supplies, while on the other side, warring factions were getting closer.
Of the 23,000 refugees in the camps, some 500 are Christians. Many were looking for ways to get away, to escape the increasing hunger and approaching conflict.
But Tigrayan forces managed to take ground and push the frontline 100km further south. The refugees were able to remain in the camps and food supplies have since been restored.
Observers fear the war in Ethiopia will worsen conditions in neighbouring Eritrea. There are reports that soldiers have been going door-to-door to press-gang young men into the military. Many of these forced conscripts are said to be under-age.
There are concerns the widening conflict could further destabilise Eritrea, an authoritarian dictatorship often described as the North Korea of Africa.
‘Please pray for the release of these Christian prisoners and for their families who will be worrying for them,’ said Release International partner Dr Berhane Asmelash. ‘Pray also for a change in government policy.’
Eritrea outlawed most religions in 2002, when the government banned every faith other than Orthodox, Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran and Sunni Islam.
‘Release International continues to press the government to release its prisoners of faith – every one of them,’ adds Release CEO Paul Robinson. ‘We urge Eritrea to repeal its restrictive religious laws and grant full freedom of faith to its citizens.’
Through its international network of missions, Release International is active in some 25 countries around the world, supporting pastors, Christian prisoners and their families; supplying Christian literature and Bibles, and working for justice.