Open Doors, an organization supporting the global persecuted church, reported this week that Wehazit Berhane Debesai is the 25th known Christian to have died in prison in Eritrea. According to the report, the exact date of death of the woman in her 30s is unknown. Eritrean authorities arrested her a year ago. They held her near the Ethiopian border for being involved in Christian activities outside the Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran church groups.
Debesai's death came as government forces arrested 70 Christians who met for prayer in the capital of Asmara, according to Open Doors. It is the third time the pastor who led the prayer event has been thrown in prison for his faith. This latest development brings the total number of Christians arrested this year in Eritrea to nearly 300. Local Christians call it the government's most serious campaign against the church so far.
In what may be a separate event, according to conflicting reports, government security forces arrested 185 Christians praying together in a suburb to the north of Asmara. According to Release International, a United Kingdom-based group serving the persecuted church, most of those arrests involved women.
"Our Eritrean partners say church leaders fear this mass arrest could herald a new clampdown on Christians and a wave of further detentions," Paul Robinson, chief executive of Release International, told the UK-based charity Cross Rhythms.
The Christians were believed to have gathered to pray for the country's refugee crisis. The United Nations reports thousands of Eritreans try to flee every month despite an alleged "shoot-to-kill" policy by security forces against anyone attempting to escape.
"The arrest has alarmed underground church leaders, who fear that this may be a sign of things to come," Robinson said.
According to International Christian Concern, an organization supporting persecuted believers, Eritrea is one of the world's worst persecutors of Christians. More than 2,000 Christians are believed to have been imprisoned for their faith.
All churches not sanctioned by the government were outlawed in 2002, and their leaders have been arrested since then. Religious groups the government does allow to operate do so under severe restrictions and are also persecuted.
"They are secluded in underground dungeons, metal shipping containers and military detention centers. They face exposure, hard labor and insufficient food, water and hygiene," the observer said. "They are regularly denied medical treatment for malaria and pneumonia which they contracted while in prison or diseases such as diabetes, hypertension or cancer that they may have had prior to imprisonment."
Eritrea is ranked No. 10 on the Open Doors 2013 World Watch List of the worst persecutors of Christians.
John Evans is a writer in Houston. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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