Eight believers punished for objecting to officials’ burning of 1,500 Bibles.
LOS ANGELES, August 11 (Compass Direct News) – Authorities on Tuesday (August 5) locked up eight high school students at a military training school in metal shipping containers for objecting to the burning of hundreds of Bibles, sources told Compass.
The eight male students from the Sawa Defense Training Centre in Sawa, near Eritrea’s border with Sudan, were incarcerated after military authorities confiscated more than 1,500 personal Bibles from new students arriving for the 2008-2009 academic year.
The eight students objected when military officials began burning the Bibles.
“During the time that the Bibles were set on fire, the chief commander of Sawa, Col. Debesai Ghide, gave a warning to all the students by telling them that Sawa is a place of patriotism, not a place for ‘Pentes’ [Pentecostals],’” said one source. “Eight male students to whom God gave boldness to speak against the burning of the Bibles have been taken into custody in one of the metal shipping containers that the military at Sawa uses as prison cells for Christians who have been found practicing their faith in the center.”
Reading the Bible privately, discussing Christian faith with other students, praying before or after meals alone or in groups and possessing the Bible or any other Christian literature is forbidden at the center, the source said. Students involved in such activities are liable to imprisonment and severe military punishment.
Military service is mandatory in Eritrea, and Eritrean students are required to attend training at military centers such as the one at Sawa in order to graduate from high school. They receive vocational training as well as instruction in academic subjects at the Sawa defense center, and then either go on to higher education or are conscripted into the military.
On January 4, 2007, military commanders at the Sawa center conducted what they termed a “random check-up on the activities of Christian extremists” among student conscripts. While searching the conscripts’ personal effects, military personnel found 250 Bibles that the Christian students were using in their personal devotional time.
After burning all the Bibles before the entire military camp, the commanders arrested 35 of the teenage students and ordered them subjected to severe military punishment, including physical torture.
Eritrean officials have routinely denied religious oppression exists in the country, saying the government is only enforcing laws against unregistered churches. In May 2002, Eritrea closed down all independent religious groups not operating under the umbrella of the government-sanctioned Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran or Muslim faiths.
The government has denied all efforts by independent Protestant churches to register, and subsequently the Orthodox Church and its flourishing renewal movement has also been subject to government raids. People caught worshipping outside the four recognized religious institutions, even in private homes, suffer arrest, torture and severe pressure to deny their faith.
Eritrea has continued to dismiss accusations of religious repression, with presidential aide Yemane Ghebremeskel reportedly saying the country has a secular constitution and long tradition of religious history.
The U.S. Department of State notes in its 2007 International Religious Freedom Report that Eritrea has not implemented its 1997 constitution providing for religious freedom. The state department last year designated Eritrea as a Country of Particular Concern, a place on the list of the worst violators of religious freedom it has held since 2004.
More than 2,000 Christians, including pastors and priests from both Protestant and Orthodox churches, are now under arrest in police stations, military camps and jails all across Eritrea because of their religious beliefs. Although many have been incarcerated for months or even years, none have been charged officially or given access to judicial process.
In December 2006 the government of Eritrea wrested control of finances and personnel from the Eritrean Orthodox Church. The church has been under de facto government control since Patriarch Abune Antonios was placed under house arrest and then divested of his ecclesiastical authority in August 2005.
Report from Compass Direct News