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Eritrea Denies Persecution of Christian Groups

The Eritrean government has denied reports by a U.K.-based Christian human rights organization that the government is persecuting certain Christian groups.

Presidential spokesman Yemane Gebremeskel told VOA recent reports that the Eritrean government is harassing, arresting, and torturing members of certain Christian denominations are false.

"Fifty percent of the population are Christian, 50 percent are Muslims," said Yemane Gebremeskel. "This is a land of Christianity, of 1,300 years of Islam, which has been here since 700 A.D. You are talking about a very pious country which has little intolerance, which has Christians, which has Muslims, which has even a synagogue. So what are you talking about?"

Earlier this week, the British-based Christian Today news service reported that 11 members of the Kale Hiwot (Word of Life) Church were arrested at the end of March, bringing the number of evangelical Christians detained that month to 150.

One of the 11 was reportedly charged with illegally printing Christian publications. According to the news service, Eritrean authorities eventually released him, warning that he needed to get official permission before publishing any Christian materials.

The news service quoted the British-based Christian human rights organization Christian Solidarity Worldwide as saying the recent arrests are part of a systematic campaign against some Christians in which more than 200 have been arrested across Eritrea since the beginning of the year while they were praying, reading the Bible, and worshipping together.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide's research and advocacy officer for Sub-Saharan Africa, Khataza Gondwe, says the government is targeting Protestant, Pentecostal and Evangelical churches in particular.

"It [the government] actually excuses this behavior by accusing these churches of being on the one hand in the pay of the CIA to destabilize Eritrea," said Khataza Gondwe. "On the other hand, they equate these churches with Al-Qaida. But it just seems to be an antipathy towards certain expressions of religion."

Ms. Gondwe says the government views Protestant, Pentecostal, and Evangelical churches as being foreign and against the country's interests.

An Eritrean government decree issued in 2002 recognizes four religious groups: Islam; Orthodox; Roman Catholic; and the Eritrean Evangelical Church. Other groups need to register with the authorities before being allowed to worship.

Presidential spokesman Mr. Gebremeskel says all new groups - not just religious ones - have to register and receive the required government permission to gather.

He says reports of religious persecution are a smear campaign against his country.