|(Images courtesy Open Doors)|
As focus turned to function, the leaders of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom say that religious liberty is an "essential element" of human dignity and that its protection deserves prominence in U.S. foreign policy.
The State Department and the religious freedom commission both named Burma, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Uzbekistan as "countries of particular concern."
It's a designation that Eritrea both disputes and ignores. However, there have been multiple reports of a widespread crackdown on Christians this year, especially for those outside the state-approved churches.
While children were once considered exempt from it, that's not the case anymore, says Jerry Dykstra, a spokesman for Open Doors USA. "We believe there's been about 200 Christians that have been incarcerated in military camps. That includes 39 students who had just completed the training for military and for schooling. They were not allowed to go forward. Instead, they were arrested because of their ‘Christian beliefs.'"
According to a statement on the official Eritrean Ministry of Information Web site, 17,000 students of the 26th national service intake graduated on July 13. All of these students had successfully completed eight months of academic studies and four months mandatory military training, according to the announcement. These students will now proceed to Senior Secondary school to complete grade 12.
The group of 39 was taken to the Sawa Military training center. Sources told Open Doors that the arrests came as a result of the students' "Christian beliefs and for their commitment to Christ." Dykstra says, "They now face beatings, hard labor, lack of food and water. But if they renounce Christ, then they can go back to their studies."
Since the beginning of the year, Christians belonging to groups outside of the government sanctioned Orthodox, Catholic, and Lutheran churches have faced a widespread arrest campaign. More than 200 men and women of various ages have been arrested since the beginning of the year, he adds. "They have no judicial system. In other words, they're arrested, there are never any charges, there is no trial. They just disappear into thin air."
One 85-year-old woman is being held in a shipping container and has contracted pneumonia. She is still being refused medical attention because she will not agree to camp authorities' terms for receiving medicine. Military training forms part of the Eritrean curriculum. But after completing school, all Eritreans must also do national service.
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. The flip side, Dykstra observes, is that "where there is hostility toward the church, Christ spreads the church and grows it. That's what's happening in Eritrea."
The fact that it's a seemingly sanctioned campaign is disconcerting, at best. "A government official stated that there are three things that need to be eradicated from Eritrea: HIV/AIDs, the regime of arch-enemy Ethiopia, and independent Christians." At least 105 Christians were arrested in 2012, and 31 Christians were reported to have died in prison.
Dykstra goes on to say that it's likely to get worse before it gets better. There's a new peril. "Another growing threat is the rise of the Muslim terrorists in the country, besides the government. We've seen the increase of that over the past year."
Pray for God's strength for Christians imprisoned in containers, especially those arrested in 2012. Pray for spouses and families who are forced to live as refugees in different countries, and for worldwide awareness of the plight of Eritrean Christians.