Eritrean authorities have arrested 39 high school students for their Christian faith, excluding them from a graduation ceremony and subjecting them to beatings and hard labor.
According to Christian support organization Open Doors, the students, including 11 girls, have been arrested for their “Christian beliefs and for their commitment to Christ” after completing a four-month military training required in Eritrea. The 39 students were selected from 17,000 students of the 26th national service intake who graduated on July 13.
“The youths are now enduring beating, forced hard labor and insufficient food and water” at the SAWA military training center, the organization reported in a press statement. “Sources said authorities are also threatening the students with long imprisonment and exclusion from university should they ‘fail to renounce Christ.'”
The government began a widespread crackdown on Christians outside the state-approved churches early this year, detaining them in harsh conditions. Since 2002, worship has been forbidden outside the government-sanctioned Sunni Muslim, Eritrean Orthodox Church (EOC), Roman Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea, with Protestant worship a criminal offense. In 2005, authorities also began persecuting the EOC, particularly those in the church’s renewal movement.
Christians make up 47 percent of Eritrea’s population of 5.2 million, and Muslims 50 percent, according to Operation World.
The Marxist-leaning architect of repression of religion and free speech in Eritrea, President Isaias Afewerki, has been in power since Eritrea’s liberation from Ethiopia in 1991; the National Assembly elected him as president 1993.
“In 2001, in the wake of a two-year border war with Ethiopia (1998-2000), Afewerki began cracking down hard on anything that could be viewed as a threat to national unity,” Elizabeth Kendal wrote in the Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin on Nov. 13, 2012. “He cancelled elections and closed all independent media. Opposition figures – politicians, activists and journalists –were removed, mostly to underground ‘secret prisons’ for the ‘disappeared.'”
An estimated 3,000, mostly Protestant, Christians were incarcerated for their faith by the end of 2010. That number fell to about 1,500 as of November 2012, according to Kendal, and Open Doors estimates the figure is now about 1,200. The prisoners are held in shipping containers in desert camps, with some kept in underground cells, Kendal noted. “The conditions are inhumane: Children and the elderly are amongst the prisoners sharing skin diseases, dysentery and other horrors in confined, unventilated spaces.”
Eritrea has made headlines for being one of the world’s top 10 worst violators of religious freedom, recognized by the U.S. State Department, World Watch List, and U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. CT has also covered the long-continuing violence against certain Christian groups in the country.