ASMARA, Eritrea Eritrean authorities are punishing 39 high school students for their Christian faith, excluding them from a graduation ceremony and subjected them to beatings and hard labor, according to Christian support organization Open Doors.
After completing a four-month military training required in Eritrea, the students, including 11 girls, have been arrested for their "Christian beliefs and for their commitment to Christ," sources told Open Doors.
"The youths are now enduring beating, forced hard labor and insufficient food and water" at the SAWA military training center, the organization reported in a press statement. "Sources said authorities are also threatening the students with long imprisonment and exclusion from university should they 'fail to renounce Christ.'"
After completing school, all Eritreans are required to participate in national service. The 39 students were selected from 17,000 students of the 26th national service intake who graduated July 13, according to Open Doors. Graduating students then continue to Senior Secondary School to complete grade 12.
Since 2002, worship outside the government-sanctioned Sunni Muslim, Eritrean Orthodox Church (EOC), Roman Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea has been forbidden, with Protestant worship a criminal offense. In 2005, authorities also began persecuting the EOC, particularly those in the church's renewal movement.
The government began a widespread crackdown on Christians outside the state-approved churches early this year, according to Open Doors, detaining them in harsh conditions. Christians make up 47 percent of Eritrea's population of 5.2 million, and Muslims 50 percent, according to Operation World.
The Marxist-leaning architect of repression of religion and free speech in Eritrea, President Isaias Afewerki, has been in power since Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1991; the National Assembly elected him as president in 1993.
"In 2001, in the wake of a two-year border war with Ethiopia (1998-2000), Afewerki began cracking down hard on anything that could be viewed as a threat to national unity," Elizabeth Kendal wrote in the Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin last fall.
"He cancelled elections and closed all independent media. Opposition figures politicians, activists and journalists were removed, mostly to underground 'secret prisons' for the 'disappeared,'" Kendal wrote.
An estimated 3,000 mostly Protestant Christians were incarcerated for their faith by the end of 2010; that number fell to about 1,500 as of November, according to Kendal, and Open Doors estimates the figure is now about 1,200. The prisoners are held in shipping containers in desert camps, with some kept in underground cells, Kendal said.
"The conditions are inhumane: Children and the elderly are amongst the prisoners sharing skin diseases, dysentery and other horrors in confined, unventilated spaces," Kendal reported. "Torture is routine.... Several Christians have died in custody, and others have perished in the desert trying to escape."
The Eritrean military has reportedly made a business of Christian refugees, kidnapping them out of refugee camps in Sudan and selling them to traffickers in Egypt's Sinai. There they are sold to Bedouin gangs who ransom them for tens of thousands of dollars, electrocuting, raping, starving and murdering the Christians as they threaten their relatives.
BP and Morning Star News (www.MorningStarNews.org), an independent news service focusing on the persecution of Christians worldwide, contributed to this report.