Over eighty young Christians who belong to the Mahalians praise group have been released from Mai Serwa prison in recent months. The young people (most of them in their early 20s) were arrested in April in the capital Asmara where they had gathered to record a praise video.
Following their arrest the young people were pressurised by prison guards to sign statements that they would not gather together for Christian meetings. Such pressure is commonly brought against Christian prisoners in Eritrea and while some prisoners have steadfastly refused to sign such statements, despite torture, others have taken the view that signing under duress is not binding.
News of the release of some of the Mahalian prisoners first emerged at the Church in Chains conference in Dublin in September, when the keynote speaker Dr Berhane Asmelash (Director of Release Eritrea) told delegates that about fifty of the group had recently been released. Since then, more have been freed – generally in small groups of between three and ten and it is hoped that the remaining twenty young people being held in prison will be released in coming weeks.
Some of the detainees had been studying at the Institute of Technology at Mai-Nefhi near Asmara and it is believed that they may be able to resume their studies.
The activities of the Mahalians praise group were no secret as they posted a praise video in 2022 on YouTube. Members of the group were drawn from several Christian denominations, united by a desire to gather together to sing and record worship songs.
In May 2002 Eritrea banned all faith groups not belonging to the recognised four groups – Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran Evangelical and Islam. Since then, thousands of believers from the banned groups have been imprisoned and some have died in custody. None of those imprisoned has been charged or accorded due legal process, instead many are tortured and asked to recant their faith or pledge not to partake in any activities related to their faith, including officiating at or attending weddings or funerals.
Although there has been no change in government policy towards Christians, hundreds of Christian prisoners have been released in the past three months and fewer Christians have been arrested during the same period. The number of Christians currently imprisoned for their faith in Eritrea is now estimated to be around three hundred.