YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Eritrea’s recent release of over 170 Christians since last summer doesn’t signal a turn towards religious freedom in the East African country, activists are warning.

Eritrea allows only Orthodox, Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran churches and Sunni Islam mosques to operate in the country, and people attending house churches are often arrested.

The latest group of released prisoners were 21 women imprisoned for unlawful worship.

Emőke Dénes of Release International -which monitors and supports persecuted Christians around the world — Crux that his organization was grateful for the release of the prisoners and “hopes to see more Christians released.”

But he said the release of the prisoners does not mark “a change on the Eritrean government policy.”

“The recent release of Christians could be a reason to divert the attention of the media. It is not working,” Dénes told Crux.

The media attention he says the Eritrean government is trying to divert is its role in the ongoing conflict in the Tigray province of neighboring Ethiopia. Eritrea troops have been accused by the UN human rights office of “grave human rights violations and abuses including mass killings in Axum, and in Dengelat in central Tigray.”

Eritrea, a onetime rival of Ethiopia, is supporting the Ethiopian government against the Tigray rebels, although it denies its troops are in the country.

However, U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock said Eritrea is not being truthful about its role in Ethiopia’s conflict.

“It is now abundantly clear to all, and openly acknowledged by officials of the government administration in Tigray, that Eritrean Defense Forces are operating throughout Tigray,” he said on Thursday.

“Countless well-corroborated reports suggest their culpability for atrocities,” he added. “Eritrean Defense Forces must leave Ethiopia, and they must not be enabled or permitted to continue their campaign of destruction before they do so.”

Paul Robinson, the CEO of Release International, said the organization’s partners on the ground say “the latest prisoner releases may be to curry favor with the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, who is a Christian.”

“Eritrea has joined forces with Ethiopia in its fight against Tigrayan rebels in the north of the country. Our partners believe Eritrea is trying to extend its influence in the Horn of Africa,” he added.

A Human Rights Watch report released March 6 notes that “between Nov. 19-29, 2020, Eritrean troops operating in the Ethiopian city of Axum, Tigray, committed a series of human rights and humanitarian law violations, including killing hundreds of civilians. Over an approximately 24-hour period on 28-29 November, Eritrean soldiers deliberately shot civilians on the street and carried out systematic house-to-house searches, extra judicially executing men and boys. “

Edward F. Clancy, Director of Outreach at the pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need, said the actions of the Eritrean troops in Tigray “have rightly drawn anger and condemnation.”

“If the release [of the Christians from prison] is an effort to obfuscate and distract from Tigray, it will not be successful,” he told Crux.

“The government cannot erase their many violations nor make people forget their record. Hopefully the government of Eritrea is seeing the errors of their ways and change is happening, but as with the number of women released in comparison to those imprisoned, much more will need to be done before there is any semblance of religious freedom in Eritrea,” he said.

Clancy further described the release of the Christians as “good news and certainly for the women and their families, but it is a token effort if it is not followed up by even more releases and changes in the laws.”

“In August of 2019, 150 Christians were arrested and either disappeared or were sentenced to hard labor,” Clancy said.

“Once in prison, the conditions and treatment of the prisoners is dreadful. Torture is routine and illness and malnutrition frequent. There are four sanctioned faith groups in Eritrea, the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic Church, Sunni Islam and Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea. But, being one of those groups does not guarantee fair treatment. In recent years, Catholic schools and hospitals were confiscated by the government and the Church was not compensated for property lost nor are they allowed to participate in these much-needed services,” Clancy told Crux.

According to International Christian Concern, there are an estimated 500 Christian prisoners of faith in Eritrea.

A 2020 Pew research estimates that 63 percent of the country’s population is Christian, and 36 percent are Muslims.