Thirty-three Eritrean women, detained during a series of raids on churches by the military, are being held in a “notoriously harsh prison”, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).

The women are among a growing number of Eritrean Christians arrested since the beginning of May. CSW says at least 170 have now been detained – an increase of 50 from the estimate of two weeks ago.

Women pray at a church in Asmara, Eritrea, Feb 2013.

The 33 women, among the first to be arrested on raids on non-sanctioned churches in the capital, Asmara, and seven other towns, are being held on a prison island created by Italian colonialists in the 19th century to crush political dissent. According to CSW there are many young mothers among the prisoners. The arrests have left 50 children without parental care as husbands are either military conscripts or working away.

The raids are the latest phase in a crackdown on Christians that has been ongoing since May 2002, when a law was passed prohibiting Christian practice outside the Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran denominations, and also Sunni Islam. Since then members of outlawed churches have taken to meeting in secret in people’s homes.

CSW describes the latest crackdown as “unprecedented in its intensity and rough treatment”.

In its June 2016 report, the UN Commission of Inquiry on human rights in Eritrea found “reasonable grounds to believe” that crimes against humanity have been committed by state officials in a “widespread and systematic manner” since 1991, including the crime of persecution.

Eritrea is ranked as the tenth most difficult country in which to be a Christian, according to Open Doors’ 2017 World Watch List.