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13 imprisoned Eritrean Christians released after VOM global prayer campaign

Eritrean refugees hold a church service on the snow-capped peak of Israel’s Mount Hermon near the borders of Lebanon and Syria. IMB file photo

ASMARA, Eritrea (BP) – Eritrea released 13 wrongfully imprisoned Christians after a global prayer campaign led by Voice of the Martyrs (VOM), the ministry to persecuted Christians said Aug. 9.

VOM mass-emailed a call to prayer on July 22 for the release of wrongfully imprisoned pastors Haile Nayzgi and Kiflu Gebremeskel. With 10,000 prayer commitments a few days later, VOM confirmed the release of 13 Christians held for 10 years.

Cause and effect can’t be confirmed, but VOM spokesman Todd Nettleton sees a likely connection.

“The closeness of the two events makes it very hard to think they are unconnected,” said Nettleton, VOM chief of media relations and message integration, and host of VOM Radio.

“We may never have ‘proof,’” Nettleton said, “but I believe that the prayers of God’s people, and the bright light of attention to the unjust persecution of Christians in Eritrea, was a significant factor in the release of those prisoners. And I pray that continued prayer and exposure of Eritrea’s ongoing abuse of Christian believers will result in more Christians being released from prison, including Pastor Haile and Dr. Kiflu.”

The two pastors, held for nearly 20 years, were not among those freed.

The Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Sunni Islam, Catholicism and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea are the only religions the Eritrean government allows, although Christians within and outside the government-recognized religions are persecuted, according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).

Christians are imprisoned there in conditions USCIRF describes as “decrepit, unsanitary, and inhumane,” including shipping containers with no access to restrooms and underground cells with no lighting.

While more than 17,000 Christians from 113 countries have signed the petition and committed to pray for the release of Haile and Kiflu, only six of those signatures were generated in Eritrea, according to VOM’s website.

“Within the borders of Eritrea, signing on to this effort would certainly be considered treason by President (Isaias) Afwerki and his government,” Nettleton said. “So it is very bold indeed that six from Eritrea have signed!” Nettleton can’t be certain how many Christians have access to the VOM site in Eritrea.

The names of the released prisoners have not been publicized for safety concerns, and little information is available on the conditions of Haile, Kiflu and as many as 400 other Christians believed to be imprisoned there.

“Because the flow of information is so limited – even their own families have almost no access to prisoners – we do not have a recent update on the health of these prisoners,” Nettleton said. “This is one of the reasons we encourage every Christian to pray for them. God certainly knows where they are being held and exactly their condition and needs at this very moment. We can pray together that He will sustain and encourage them – and for their soon release.”

Eritrea is widely recognized as a place where Christians face extreme persecution. VOM’s 2023 prayer guide classifies Eritrea as “restricted” because of government persecution. The Open Doors 2023 World Watch List deems Eritrea the fourth most hostile country for Christians globally. In its 2023 report, USCIRF described religious freedom conditions in Eritrea as “extremely poor,” and the U.S. State Department describes widespread religious persecution there.

VOM has tracked, advocated for and supported persecuted Christians globally since 1997.