Authorities raided the Church of the Living God in Asmara, Eritrea, Aug. 24 and arrested 30 Christians gathered for prayer. Police are holding them at a local station and pressuring them to recant their faith, according to Mission Network News.
Raids on illegal Christian churches are commonplace in Eritrea, a small East African nation sandwiched between Sudan and Ethiopia. In 2002, President Isaias Afewerki passed a law closing all churches not belonging to the Orthodox Christian, Roman Catholic, and Evangelical Lutheran denominations. Orthodox Christians and Sunni Muslims make up most of the population, and they were both unhappy with evangelical Christianity’s growth during Eritrea’s war with Ethiopia.
Christians who risk attending underground evangelical churches are in a “cloak and dagger situation,” according to William Stark, the Regional Manager for Africa with International Christian Concern (ICC). Eritrean Christians have to be careful not to get caught and make sure they aren’t being followed. He said the Eritrean government plants individuals to find unsanctioned churches.
“If you’re caught worshipping freely, the government is going to take you and essentially put you in a concentration camp,” Stark said. Christians who will not recant their faith are often sent to “secret military prison camps” where they are packed into metal shipping containers in the desert with many other prisoners. Since there is no official sentencing, they have no idea how long they’ll be detained.
Besides the dire conditions and the lack of food in the containers, guards also beat and torture prisoners. Stark said guards will hold prisoners in “helicopter position,” tying their hands and feet behind them so they must lie on their stomachs for hours in the hot sand. Many die from the inhumane treatment at these prison camps.
An escapee from Eritrean prisons, Kidane Isaac, told Amnesty International about the horrors prisoners endure: “Every night you hear shouts and cries of people being beaten. I remember I was beaten very terribly, with metal bars.”
Stark says it is likely the arrested Christians will “disappear into these prisons,” since they were already willing to risk arrest. Earlier this year, five other Christians from the same church were arrested, according to World Watch Monitor.
ICC estimates between 2,000 to 3,000 Christians are imprisoned in that country. Stark said the persecution has worsened this year as the government has taken a “more aggressive stance” to control the country. At least 261 Christians have been arrested just for worshipping at non-state churches in 2013, Mission Network News reported.
The United States Commission on Religious Freedom and the State Department have ranked Eritrea among the worst nations for religious freedom. Some Christians try to escape—fleeing to Eritrean camps in Sudan or Ethiopia—but they face persecution from the border police, who might imprison them or execute them on the spot, physical dangers in the arid and mountainous country, as well as human traffickers looking for people to kidnap and ransom.