Since 2003, Christians in the small East African country of Eritrea have been under siege, with thousands languishing in prisons for their faith. This despite the country being nearly evenly split between Christians and Muslims.

A new crackdown on Christians has seen mass arrests in recent weeks, as the Eritrean Christian Patriarch Antonios marks ten years in detention.

International Christian Concern reports:

Eritrea has now arrested 200 Christians in house-to-house raids, in a tough new crackdown which is tearing children from their parents. Young children and a baby are among those arrested. It’s feared they could spend their childhood in a prison cell. Release International is calling on Eritrea to free the Christians and has launched a campaign calling for concerted prayer for Eritrea’s prisoners of faith.

Security forces in Eritrea have been going house-to-house arresting Christians. They have rounded up 177 adults, along with some 20 small children. The arrests are continuing and many Christians have gone into hiding.

Release International partner Dr Berhane Asmelash says rounding up Christians door-to-door is a new tactic that signals a worsening of the crackdown. He believes the single-party state is taking a tough new line against the church.

“People used to be arrested for conducting unauthorised meetings, such as Bible studies or prayers. But this is new for us when they go from house to house. They are arresting people for their beliefs, not for their actions. This is getting worse. Many Christians are in hiding.”

“Security forces in different towns went from house to house asking people their religion. If they were outside the [state sanctioned] Lutheran, Catholic, Muslim and Orthodox faiths, they arrested them.”

Twelve children were arrested with their parents, and some parents were forced to leave their underage children unattended.”

Children who are too young to be separated from their mothers face being brought up in jail unless their parents are released. They include a two-month old baby.

It’s believed that as many as 3,000 Christians are imprisoned in Eritrea under extreme conditions.

One report on the hunger strikes states:

Two Pentecostal women have died following a hunger strike after being transferred to a hospital from the detention centre where they were being held.

Eritrean website Erimedrek News reported that the women had been detained at Wi’a Military Camp and had begun a hunger strike in protest at the abuse they were experiencing whilst incarcerated.

The site also reported that bruises on the women’s bodies suggested that they had injuries consistent with sexual abuse.

The women were admitted to Massawa Hospital on 12 March, where they were guarded by security personnel, but died five days later.

In late May, coinciding with the beginning of Ramadan, 89-year old Eritrean Christian Patriarch Antonios marked ten years under house arrest.

A number of countries, including the U.S., denounced the continued detention of the leader of the Eritrean Orthodox Church and the denial of medical treatment: