International Christian Concern (ICC) has learned that Pastor Oqbamichel Haiminot has been released after more than a decade of imprisonment. According to VOM Australia, Pastor Oqbamichel was the first senior pastor in Eritrea to be arrested and held after the controversial and wrongful crackdown on religion in 2002. Though he was only in jail for a short period after his initial arrest in 2003, he was constantly harassed and rearrested over the next four years. In 2007, he was finally arrested and jailed for more than 10 years even though no charges were ever filed against him.
Pastor Oqbamichel is one of hundreds of Christians in Eritrea who have been arrested and held for years due to their faith. In 2017, more than 200 Christians were arrested, yet never charged with any criminal activity. One of ICC’s sources shared, “There are only four legalized religions allowed in the country, which include Eritrean Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, and Sunni Islam. The regime touts this as religious freedom, however, to join any of these religions, people must first make four pledges.” One must pledge to never be “born again,” that his or her loyalty is to the government, not God or the Church, to never carry a Bible outside of church or the home, and to turn in any missionaries or evangelists to the government. When you turn in a missionary or evangelist, you get paid three months’ wages.
The Eritrean government is willing to go to great lengths to arrest and eradicate Christians. According to another underground pastor in Eritrea, Abraham*, “There are false brothers among us, who gather information. [He comes] to you, believing in the name of Jesus, you baptize him, but he is a spy.” These spies are sent by the government to find those who are not part of the four legal religions, and arrest them.
Abraham experienced this government-led persecution firsthand in 2010. He shared,“In 2010, we were gathered for a meeting in Asmara, 34 or 35 together, and we were arrested and taken to the police station.” He was then moved to an underground prison where “there was no sun or light or [fresh air]. It was underground and we could only see each other when we went to the bathroom.” These jail cells keep those imprisoned in the worst conditions, with extreme temperature changes, a lack of light, no space, and often isolation. The only time they experience any freedom from their cells is once or twice a day when they are allowed to use the restroom. Abraham was held in this prison for one year.
This is the type of treatment that Pastor Oqbamichel suffered for the past decade. According to VOM, he is in need of medical assistance as his heath has deteriorated due to his treatment in prison.
Nathan Johnson, ICC’s Regional Manager for Africa, stated, “We are rejoicing for the release of a faithful man and are praying for his health and safety as he returns to a somewhat free life. We also remember the hundreds of others who are still suffering under this cruel and inhumane regime. The world must come together to end the abuse of human rights in Eritrea.”
*Name changed for security