Eritrea released at least 35 Christians from prison earlier this week, reports the Eritrean news site Asmarino Independent.
The prisoners, among them 11 women, were released on bail from Mai-Sirwa prison, just outside the capital Asmara. While five were able to leave on Tuesday (17 July), the remaining 30 were freed on Wednesday (18 July).
In 2002, Eritrea passed a law prohibiting Churches other than the Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran Churches, and also Sunni Islam.
The 35 had been held for belonging to unregistered Christian denominations. And although they had signed a form, four and half years ago, promising to no longer attend meetings of their respective faith groups, they were only set free now, according to AfricaNews.
Most members of the group are young and not in positions of leadership in their churches or groups. Prominent pastors and religious leaders are being held in other, high security prisons including the notorious Karsheli prison in Asmara.
UK-based rights group Release Eritrea confirmed the release of the 35. “Inevitably we thank God for those released, but we are concerned about those that remain in prison and in particular the elderly Patriarch of the Orthodox church and the priests and pastors who have been in prison since 2004, they too are getting on in age and have increasingly failing health”, said its director, Dr Berhane Asmelash, in a statement, adding that “there are hundreds of prisoners in at least ten prisons around the country imprisoned for periods ranging from few months to close to 20 years. We call for them all to be released.”
While it is difficult to obtain numbers, Release Eritrea estimates that two prisons alone, Mai-Etir and Dahlak, are holding about 250 prisoners of conscience.
Father Thomas Reese, of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, told a US Human Rights Commission hearing in April that Eritrea remained “one of the worst examples of state-sponsored repression of freedom of religion or belief in the world”, where an estimated 1,200–3,000 people are detained on religious grounds.
They are being held in about 60 prisons and camps that make up Eritrea’s extensive prison network.
As relations with neighbouring Ethiopia have started to show signs of improvement, there have been speculations as to whether this would lead to an improvement in the human rights’ situation in Eritrea.
The UN’s rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea, Sheila Keetharuth, called for the momentum to be used to improve human rights conditions in the country.
Eritrea is 6th on the 2018 Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian.