On Sunday, April 20, it was announced at the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Asmara that five men-Petros Yosief, Bemnet Tesfay, Aklilu Tesfay, Ermias Hadgu and Aron Mehretu-were to be ordained. Shortly thereafter, all five of the men were arrested. The Evangelical Lutheran Church is one of four recognized churches in Eritrea, the others being the Catholic, Orthodox and Islam.
“The arrest clearly shows how even government-recognized churches are not free from government control,” commented an Open Doors (OD) source who remains anonymous for security reasons.
May marks 12 years since the government clamped down on the church in Eritrea. In 1997, they ordered all religious groups outside of the Eritrean Orthodox Church (EOC), the Roman Catholic Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church and Islam to apply for registration with the Department of Religious Affairs. Nothing came of their applications, but in 2002, the State closed down all those churches that did not apply, while labelling as “compliant” those who obeyed the 1997 order.
The church closures were the beginning of harsh persecution for the unregistered churches. Believers who continue religious activities in these unrecognized groups face arrest, incarceration under harsh prison circumstances and torture.
Since that time, however, both the sanctioned and compliant groups have also begun to experience increased pressure due to government surveillance and interference. In 2006, the government took control of the Orthodox Church, seizing tithes as well as deposing the Patriarch and placing him under house arrest. Other restrictions on these churches include travel restrictions and limitation on publications. Any sign of resistance has been met with fierce repercussions, and some priests have ended up in prison.
“The arrest of these pastoral candidates reminds us of one of the greatest challenges churches Eritrea face. Under the constant turn-over of pastors due to arrest or threats, continuous and biblically consistent pastoral care for Christians is hampered. We ask believers around the globe to pray that in the midst of the circumstances, God will make a way for His children to be shepherded. Pray also for God’s sustaining grace to church leaders and ordinary Christians who continue their drawn out ordeals in Eritrea’s notoriously brutal network of prison,” commented an Open Doors worker.
Father, we implore You on behalf of these five men, soon to be pastors; that You will not allow the government to hinder their work in Your church. Protect and comfort them in prison, and bring about their quick release. May this time in prison not be in vain, but rather let there be opportunities for Your gospel to go forth even there. We pray for other Christians in prison as they encounter harsh treatment. Heal them, body and soul, and strengthen their faith. As pastoral care is diminished due to threats and imprisonment, we pray that You will raise up mature Christians to mentor new believers, to teach them from Your Word and to encourage them in the faith. Satan would seek to weaken Your church by imprisoning her leaders, but we pray that what he means for harm, to destroy Christ’s church, You would use to grow and strengthen her. In the name of Jesus, who has already won the victory, Amen.