It could have been me

The Archbishop of Canterbury reveals the plight of fellow Christian leader Samba Momesori, imprisone

Perceptions of Christian churches in the west are often of a dwindling organisation, quarrelling self-destructively over minor matters. This is inadequate and unjust; but it is not easy (for European Christians, never mind non-Christians) to realise that it is only a sliver of the reality worldwide; that the energy for political liberation and the health of civil society depends massively on the churches in many divided and deprived nations - and that the past century has seen more Christians killed for faith and conscience than in all the 1,900 previous years together. For any Christian pastor in the UK, especially a comfortably placed archbishop, this is sobering. And the stories of those who are suffering for their commitment to the vision and values of the Christian gospel put our domestic church squabbles into perspective. My own faith drives me to speak out on "political" issues and I can do so in safety. Sadly, for some, this is not the case.

Equatorial Guinea - on the western coast of Africa, between Cameroon and Gabon - is one of those countries that seldom makes the headlines; but its administration's human-rights record is as seriously worrying as many larger and better-known states. Torture and imprisonment without charge or trial are routine. As happens so tragically often in the region, the conflicts that most disturb the country are largely ethnic, with the minority Bubi group, living on Bioko island, objecting to their treatment by the majority. There have been attacks on military installations by some Bubis in recent years, and the reprisals have been severe.

The Reverend Bienvenido Samba Momesori has been caught up in this conflict. A pastor of the Cherubim and Seraphim Church, he has spoken out peacefully about political issues - and he is ethnically a Bubi. He was first arrested in 1998 after a clash between armed Bubi activists and the military, and initially condemned to death after a show trial. The sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment. He was released in 2002 as part of an amnesty, but was rearrested on 26 October 2003. Since then, he has been held without trial.

Evinayong, where he is imprisoned, is a substantial distance from Samba's home, and the family (four daughters and a son) can only visit once every few months. They leave him money to buy food, as provision of food in the prisons of Equatorial Guinea is often inadequate. Since the International Committee of the Red Cross has been able to visit, Samba's conditions have been improved somewhat. But the basic difficulties about family access remain. The provision of assistance to help the family travel would be a step forward.

But behind it all is the ongoing scandal of imprisonment without trial as a sanction against peaceful dissidents or ethnic minorities. President Obiang of Equatorial Guinea announced last June the release of 42 prisoners to mark his birthday. This is welcome; but it doesn't touch the underlying problem. And releasing people under a special amnesty can look like an admission of the arbitrary nature of the arrest in the first place. Pressure needs to be maintained for a comprehensive opening-up of the political life of this nation.

Religious leaders are often among those caught up in the tension between ethnic groups and arbitrary national administrations, from the old South Africa to East Timor - pleading with unsympathetic governments for their people's rights, pleading with militants in their own community to hold back from violence. They deserve support from believers and unbelievers alike. Write to Samba with your support and to the government of Equatorial Guinea.

A small country and a single rather obscure case? Yes. But, as we are constantly reminded, to let this go unchallenged in any area is to sell the pass for universal justice. And that is not an option for any religious person, or indeed anyone who thinks human dignities and liberties are more than a local arrangement for the convenience of the prosperous.

To take action on behalf of Reverend Samba Momesori, go to http://www.amnesty.org.uk

In association with Amnesty International