ASMARA, 9 February 2021 – Seventy evangelical and orthodox Christians remanded in three prisons in Eritrea for between two to 12 years have been released.
The majority of the prisoners – 21 female and 43 male Christians – were released from Mai Serwa and Adi Abeito prisons, close to the capital, Asmara.
Christians who do not belong to state-approved denominations are often arrested, molested, detained under inhumane conditions or sent to prison without trial, according to the religious freedom charity Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).
The Christian rights group said the detainees were released last February 1. Four days earlier, six female detainees were also released.
The women were arrested after worshipping in public as they walked down a street.
The scene, caught on camera and posted on social media platforms, led to their detention.
The international community has welcomed the release, but warned that Asmara may be distracting from troublesome reports that Eritrea has its soldiers fighting in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region and forcefully repatriating Eritrean refugees in camps there.
Rights groups have said the crimes committed by Eritrean and Ethiopian forces in Tigray may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.
“We call on the international community to press Eritrea for the immediate and unconditional release of all those detained arbitrarily on account of their religion or belief,” said Mervyn Thomas, founder president of CSW.
Priests in Tigray have said thousands of Eritrean who were in their congregations were forcefully deported to Eritrea.
The refugees had fled oppression, authoritarianism and compulsory military service in their home country only to have themselves arrested in UN-managed camps in Tigray and deported back to the country they had fled persecution in.
About 10,000 of Eritrean refugees based in the Schimelba and Hitsats camps in Tigray – home to about 20,000 refugees in all – were deported to Eritrea, according to Father Mussie Zerai, a priest of the Archdiocese of Asmara.
An estimated 96,000 Eritreans were based in camps across Tigray.
“What happened in the refugee camps in Tigray is a cruel violation of the Geneva Convention of 1951,” which relates to the status of a refugee, Rev. Father Mussie Zerai said.
“We know there have been violence and killings,” Father Mussie Zerai added.
It is unclear what has happened to all those deported to Eritrea.
Returning refugees are treated by Eritrea as deserters. “After the punishment period is over, if they survive, they will be forced to return to military service and national service,” Rev. Father Mussie Zerai said.
No less than 50 percent of Eritreans are Christians.