Eritrea's Christians are 'suffering so grievously for their faith' - Lord Alton

The protest called for the release of prisoners of conscience in the East African country(Photo: CSW)

Lord Alton has told UK Christians that they must not forget nor forsake their suffering fellow believers in Eritrea, where many have been imprisoned for their faith in inhumane conditions.

The crossbench peer spoke on the plight of Eritrean Christians during an online protest on Thursday night hosted by Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Church in Chains Ireland, the Eritrean Orthodox Church in the UK, Human Rights Concern-Eritrea and Release Eritrea.

As a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Eritrea, Lord Alton told protesters he had heard "shocking accounts" of persecution in the country, where hundreds of Christians are being held without trial. 

"Such grievous suffering is thrown into sharp relief when measured against the privileges and freedoms which we in the United Kingdom so readily take for granted," he said. 

"In Eritrea, by contrast, many are being held in facilities as rudimentary as shipping containers, underground cells and even in the desert, where they experience torture, where they're deprived of adequate food, potable water and access to medical attention. 

"All this makes a mockery of Article 18 of the 1948 Declaration on Human Rights."

Despite the protest having to take place online because of coronavirus, Lord Alton said he hoped it would have an even greater impact and "serve as a testament that our brothers and our sisters who are languishing in captivity are neither forgotten nor abandoned".

"Now is a moment to combine political pressure and prayer, knowing as the great poet Tennyson said in Victorian times, that 'more things are wrought by prayer than this world ever dreams of', and as the Psalmist reminds us in Psalm 37, that God does not forsake His faithful one, but nor must we," he continued.

"We mustn't forsake Eritrea, we mustn't forget Eritrea. Our duty is to work for justice, a just future for a suffering and persecuted people, a just future for Eritrea, a benighted country caught in the crosshairs of tyrannical ideology, injustice and an indifferent world. 

"So pray as if the entire outcome depends on God and work as if the entire outcome depends upon you." 

The Free Eritrea protest has taken place for the last 17 years outside the Eritrean embassy in London.  This year, it was forced to move online due to the pandemic. 

Eritrea is home to around 2.5 million Christians but the state only recognises the Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran and Orthodox Christian denominations.  Christians from unsanctioned denominations face intense persecution, including arbitrary arrests and imprisonment for years on end without trial, but even Christians from the recognised denominations can be targeted.

One of the most high profile detainees is the legitimate Eritrean Orthodox patriarch Abune Antonios, 92, who has been under house arrest since January 2007 after criticising government interference in church affairs and refusing to expel 3,000 members of the renewal movement, Medhane Alem. His detention led to a schism in the Church and cemented the government's control over it, CSW said. 

Other church leaders have also been imprisoned and just a few days ago, the Reverend Haile Naizge, chairman of the Full Gospel Church, and Dr Kuflu Gebremeskel, chairman of the Eritrean Evangelical Alliance and member of the executive committee of the Full Gospel Church of Eritrea, marked their 16th year in incommunicado detention.

There were hopes that a peace deal reached between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 2018 would lead to an improvement in human rights in the two countries.  While there have been some positive developments in Ethiopia, this has not been the case in Eritrea.

Last month Daniela Kravetz, the UN's Special Rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea, reported that in 2019, more than 200 people were imprisoned because of their faith.

CSW's Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said: "We may be on lockdown, but we will not be silenced. We will continue calling on the Eritrean authorities to release all prisoners of conscience, including those detained on account of their religious beliefs, and will stand in solidarity with the Eritrean people until every prison door is opened and all who have been detained unjustly are set free."