YAOUNDÉ, Cameroon – Eritrea, located in Eastern Africa, ranked among the top ten countries in the world where following Jesus is an extremely dangerous enterprise.

A July 3 report by the UK-based Release International which covers the persecuted Church worldwide, states that at least 218 Christians had been arrested in Eritrea within the past 12 months, many of them women and children.

“This latest crackdown means that around 400 Christians are currently imprisoned – indefinitely, without trial or charge – because of their faith,” the report states.

It says between January and May, 110 Christians were seized.

“In the last round of arrests some children have been arrested with their parents, and in some cases the whole family is in prison,” said Dr. Berhane Asmelash, a former prisoner of faith, and local partner for Release International.

“We are very concerned for the physical and mental wellbeing of the children, some of whom are only two years old. This is totally unacceptable, and we strongly condemn this inhuman act by the Eritrean government,” he said.

Eritrea gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after 30 years of war. The former leader of the independence movement, Isaias Afwerki has since ruled the country.

Afwerki initially led the country towards democratic governance, but then became increasingly authoritarian, with the Church paying a heavy price. His government recognizes only four state religions, namely the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Sunni Islam, the Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea, but even with these, the government keeps tight control over their activities, their finances and preaching.

“Speaking out about persecution or government interference in Church matters is not tolerated at all,” states Open Doors.

Ellis Heasley, Public Affairs Officer, Christian Solidarity Worldwide told Crux in an earlier interview that “in Eritrea, Christians continue to face widespread imprisonment and other violations of their fundamental human rights.”

“Many will be familiar with the case of Abune (Father) Antonios, the legitimate patriarch of the Orthodox Church who died on 9 February 2022 following 16 years under house arrest. He had been removed from office in 2006, in violation of canon law, for repeatedly objecting to government interference in ecclesiastical affairs and refusing to excommunicate members of the Orthodox renewal movement. He died amidst allegations he was being injected with an unknown substance that had detrimental effects on his health,” he said.

“The patriarch’s continued and unjust detention throughout the final years of his life is indicative of the Eritrean authorities’ persisting hostility to Christian groups in the country. The government has effectively “captured” the Orthodox Church, controlling its finances, selling its assets, approving and imposing leaders and imprisoning priests and others who object,” Heasley he said.

The recent Release International Report comes at the same time the U.S. State Department released its International Religious Freedom Report in which Eritrea is listed as a Country of Particular Concern “for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”

It has always been so with the Horn of Africa country since 2004.

Nigerian Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama of Abuja told Crux that violating the right to belief fundamentally violates all other freedoms.

“Freedom of religion is not just an American right but the right of all people. It goes hand in hand with freedom of expression, freedom of speech and assembly, and when religious freedom is restricted, all these rights are at risk. And for this reason, religious freedom is often the bellwether for other human rights,” Kaigama said.

Kaigama said that while religious freedom has come under assault in several parts of the world, the media has neglected its coverage.

“A journalist jailed in Iran is likely to get more attention than three thousand Christians killed or enslaved in Sudan,” he told Crux.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s Heasley says her organization continues to call on “the Eritrean government to release immediately and without condition every prisoner of conscience in the country, and to end the use of torture, arbitrary arrest and indefinite detention.”

“We urge Eritrea to co-operate fully with the UN Human Rights Council and its special procedures in order to improve the human rights situation and to implement in full the recommendations made by successive special rapporteurs and the Commission of Inquiry,” she told Crux.