By Worthy News Africa Service with reporting by Worthy News' Stefan J. Bos
CAIRO, EGYPT (Worthy News)-- Hundreds of mainly Christian refugees from Eritrea are jailed or or held by kidnappers in Egypt, where they face torture, beatings and sexual assault, according to Christian aid workers who contacted Worthy News.
"The suffering of our brothers and sisters from Eritrea is unimaginable," explained Patrick Sookhdeo, International Director of aid and advocacy group Barnabas Fund.
Many of the refugees tried to reach Israel, Worthy News learned Thursday, June 9. Before they reached Israel, however, the Eritreans were either halted by Egyptian security forces or by Bendouin Muslim nomads who work with human traffickers in the Sinai desert, said several rights activists and Christians with close knowledge about the situation.
There are up to 600 Eritrean prisoners in Egyptian custody and up to 200 others in the hands of traffickers, "have been less restricted in their criminal activities since the Egyptian revolution in January" ousted President Hosni Mubarak, Barnabas Fund said.
Hostage-takers reportedly demand up to $20,000 per person for their release. "If families don’t pay, the hostage is killed. There are unconfirmed reports that the captors are turning to forced organ harvesting, especially if the ransom is not paid," Barnabas Fund added in a statement.
Eritreans are reportedly also being kidnapped from United Nations refugee camps in Sudan.
Barnabas investigators said the refugees suffer "inhumane treatment, including rape, sexual harassment, torture, beatings and slavery" by "Egyptian authorities or Bedouin gangs".
Those in prison are denied medical care, suffer malnutrition as a result of meager daily rations such as a piece of bread and a tomato, and have restricted access to visitors, according to Christian rights investigators.
Christians receive more severe treatment than Muslim prisoners because of their faith, Barnabas Fund alleged. Some prisoners allegedly adopted common Muslim names in an effort to alleviate their suffering.
There was no comment from Egyptian officials, who have come under international pressure to make Christians part of the political process in the post-Mubarak era.
However Barnabas Fund acknowledged that it has been able -- apparently with permission from authorities -- to help arrange the release of three Eritreans. It added that it also paid "legal fees" to the unidentified prison to ensure that 23 other prisoners can be seen and registered by the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR.
The group said it is raising money to pay for medical expenses, including for a woman with kidney failure, as well as medicine, food, clothes and sanitary products for other Eritrean prisoners.
Additionally, four women who were abandoned in "a seriously injured state by traffickers in the Sinai desert following a car accident" are also receiving support for medical treatment and food, Barnabas Fund stressed. A fifth member of their group apparently died of her injuries.
Local Christians have linked the alleged abuse by kidnappers and even Egyptian authorities to the Christian faith of many Eritreans. They already fled persecution at home, said Sookhdeo. "They are in great danger from their government, which is one of the most severe persecutors of Christians in the world..."
In November, Eritrean church leaders as at least 1,500 Christians are imprisoned because of their faith in Eritrea. Some rights groups say as many 3,000 Eritrean Christians may be held in detention centers, ranging from police prisons and military jails to even shipping containers.
Since 2002 Eritrea only allows the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the Lutheran Church, the Roman-Catholic Church and Islamic groups to operate officially, although church leaders of these traditional denominations have also complained about harassment.
Church groups say especially devoted Christians involved in evangelical worship or evangelism have been targeted. Eritrea's government has denied any wrongdoing saying it wants to protect the country against dangerous sects and bad foreign influences.
Those Christians seeking more freedom in other countries, however, now face "imprisonment, kidnap, torture, rape, beatings and even death," in Egypt, complained Sookhdeo. "They desperately need our help today."