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World News

Bittersweet celebrations in Eritrea: 69 believers released from prison while 5 arrested

by Kelly Valencia

Eritrean Christians are celebrating as 69 Christians have been released from prison. However, there are claims that they have only been released on bail, which would forbid them from leaving the country.

Many of those previously incarcerated were long-term prisoners, with one having been behind bars for 16 years.

In the aftermath of the announcement, Christians took to the streets to celebrate - which resulted in the arrest of five women.  

Dr Berhane Asmelash is a partner of Release International, a Christian charity working in Eritrea. He claims these women were not doing anything wrong.

“One is a mother of five, another the mother of four. They were cheering from the roadside – and arrested on the spot.”

This is not the first time that the Eritrean Government has released Christian prisoners. Last month 27 believers were also set free; however, for Dr Asmelash this does not represent a true change of heart by the Government and he thinks it is unlikely more releases will follow.

 “We have been here before many times. We don’t see any change in government policy. God is the only hope for our country. Keep praying."

Some have suggested that the recent trend of releasing prisoners is purely a precaution to avoid the spread of coronavirus, but according to Dr Asmelash, this is not the case.

“The release of so few prisoners wouldn’t change a thing,” he said. “But the virus is only one of their problems. The prisoners face hardship, illness and malnutrition. Most of the prisons don’t have toilet facilities.”

Dr Asmelash estimates that there are around 300 Christians imprisoned for their faith in the country who are being held indefinitely without ever having had a trial.

He said: "Our message to the Government of Eritrea is this: these people haven’t committed any crime. Most of them are hard-working people of peace, who could be used to rebuild their country. Please – release the rest of the prisoners."

The US State Department puts the figure for all prisoners of conscience in Eritrea as high as 3,000.

According to media reports, half a million Eritreans have fled their country – almost one in six of the population.

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