The 35 prisoners, among them 11 women, were released on bail from Mai-Sirwa prison, just outside Eritrea's capital Asmara, last week.
The 35 released Christians were being held because they belong to unregistered Christian denominations. The group have all signed a document promising not to attend meetings of underground churches. Normally signing a document like this would lead to a prisoner’s release but these 35 Christians signed the document four and a half years ago and have been detained ever since.
Zoe Smith, Head of Advocacy at Open Doors, said, “This is a really encouraging sign and we are delighted for all those who have been released. But it is a drop in the ocean compared to the ongoing persecution of Christians by the government of Eritrea.”
Most members of the group are young and are not church leader. Prominent pastors and religious leaders are held in higher security prisons such as the notorious Karsheli prison in Asmara.
There are an estimated 1,200–3,000 people detained on religious grounds across 60 prisons and camps that make up Eritrea’s extensive prison network. More than 300 Christians were arrested in Eritrea last year.
Following the recent peace agreement between Eritrea and Ethiopia, there are hopes that the human rights situation may improve as Eritrea becomes more open.
Eritrea is number 4 on the Open Doors World Watch List. The government views Christians as agents of the West, and arrests, harasses and kills them with impunity. Christians who live in Muslim areas are made vulnerable by Islamic militancy. Conversion to Christianity is seen as a betrayal of community, family and Islamic faith. Arrests and forced disappearances are common, with more than 300 Christians arrested last year. Many believers are held in miserable conditions, some in shipping containers in scorching temperatures. Thousands have been imprisoned, some for over a decade.