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Eritrean Christian gatherings hit with mass arrests

Christians in Eritrea are facing increased levels of persecution, with reports that some 45 believers were arrested and imprisoned in raids on Christian gathering across the capital of Asmara.

According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, 15 Christians were arrested as they attended a worship service in a home in the Mai Chehot area of Asmara in April. They were detained in a local police station before being transported to the Mai Serwa Prison. Then, in June, a group of 30 people were arrested at the wedding of a Christian couple.

The shock arrests come as concerns intensify about the potentially deadly impact of Covid-19 across Eritrea’s overcrowded prison system.

Currently, thousands of Eritreans are detained without charge or trial in more than 300 sites across the country, often in horrific conditions. Many of those imprisoned are being held on account of their political views or religious beliefs. 

Dr Berhane Asmelash, director of Release Eritrea, told CSW: “The government will excuse these arrests by saying these people are detained for breaking Covid restrictions. But the reaction is very heavy handed. Why detain them in such conditions; why not fine or warn them?”

Dr Berhane added: “Eritrea’s entire prison population is estimated at 48,000. There is insufficient food and due to the lockdown, people cannot take food to family members in prison, because there is no transportation and they are either confined to their houses or local areas. Prisoners are suffering because they cannot get food from their families. The president is using Covid-19 to raise funds, but people in Eritrea are starving – there is no food, there is no money. There is nothing.”

CSW’s chief executive Mervyn Thomas said: “It is clear that the Eritrean government views the Covid-19 lockdown as a means of increasing its already pervasive control of society. Instead of supporting its citizens during this difficult time, it is extorting their finances, reportedly preventing the flow of food to malnourished communities, and has even closed down health facilities in the Southern Red Sea region. These closures, along with the 2019 seizures of Catholic healthcare centres, have deprived the most vulnerable of access to medical assistance during an unprecedented global pandemic.

"We also remain concerned for those currently detained in Eritrea’s overcrowded and insanitary prisons, including those recently arrested.  We continue to call for the immediate and unconditional release of every prisoner of conscience, and of low-risk and vulnerable detainees in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. We also urge the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) to ensure continued monitoring of the country’s deteriorating human rights crisis by renewing the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Eritrea.”

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