“This is an answer to prayer. Thousands of Christians have been praying for this.” These were the words of Eritrean church leader Dr Berhane Asmelash as Christians long imprisoned for their faith were freed from captivity.
Since September 2020, at least 160 Christians have been released from Eritrean prisons. The first 69 Christians were released from the notorious Mai Serwa high-security military detention centre near the capital Asmara in September. In January 2021, 70 more were released from Mai Serwa and two other prisons. This was followed in February with the release of 21 female prisoners who had been held for four years in the hostile and isolated Nakarua prison on the Dahlak Islands, in the Red Sea.
The releases were, to the Church in Eritrea, a reminder of the Biblical promise of the Lord Jesus Christ releasing prisoners from captivity because of His eternal covenant with His chosen people (Zechariah 9:11-12).
Imprisoned Christians ready to die for Christ
Some of these Christians had been held for more than 16 years, others for only a few months, but all sacrificed their liberty, and often their health too, for the sake of their faith in Jesus Christ.
Any one of the prisoners could have chosen to be released from their ordeal. “The only thing they needed to do was to sign a piece of paper to say that they renounced their faith,” explained Dr Berhane. “But they preferred to stay in prison rather than do this and get out. They never thought they would get out. They were ready to die.”
While the release of prisoners is cause for celebration, as many as 400 Christians are thought to remain in Eritrea’s prisons, often enduring inhumane and brutal conditions.
Persecuted Church “picks up the pieces” and cares for children of jailed parents
Among the hundreds arrested were parents forced to leave behind children as young as eight or nine. In some cases grandparents or other family members could care for these children, but in others there was nobody to offer support. The Church sought to provide for as many of the children as it could, but it had to be done in secret for fear of further government reprisals.
Prisoners tortured, starved and forced into hard labour
Imprisoned Christians are tortured, starved and forced into hard labour. Conditions are worse for pastors and theological students who are singled out for beatings or have their jail terms extended as a warning to others. Most Christians are held indefinitely, often without trial, not knowing when they will be released.
“All the prisoners have faced harsh treatment,” explained Dr Berhane. “There was always lack of food, always beatings. Sometimes guards would punish them by stopping them from taking a bath. This led to many suffering from skin infections.”
Unlit underground cells led to sight problems for prisoners
One prisoner recounted that he was held with three other men in a cell four metres underground with only a small opening at the top. They were only allowed out twice a day to use the toilet, and suffered from infections caused by the unsanitary conditions, and sight problems resulting from the lack of light.
Some prisoners did indeed die for Christ, as they perished in the harsh conditions. A husband, wife and their 17-year-old son were arrested together, with the wife held in a separate location. When father and son were released, they discovered that she had died in prison from heat exhaustion and acute kidney failure.
One of the worst countries in world for persecution
Eritrea remains one of the worst countries in the world for Christian persecution, where conditions are so harsh for believers that it is described by some as Africa’s North Korea. Only three denominations are legally permitted – Eritrean Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Lutheran – as well as Sunni Islam. All others are illegal and members of unofficial churches are subject to arbitrary arrest and detention without trial. As a result of this persecution tens of thousands of Christians have fled Eritrea.
The leaders of unofficial churches are often a target for persecution. Sadly no pastors or other senior Christian leaders were among those released from prison in recent months.
Yet even those churches granted official status are not guaranteed freedom from intimidation – for the government is quick to undermine their status if it is thought to threaten the power of the state. During 2019, authorities shut down 21 health centres run by a registered church denomination and ordered the closure of seven Christian schools.
“Christians are considered illegals,” explained Dr Berhane, “but … There is no crime being done apart from believing in God.”
“Sometimes they get lost – sometimes they don’t know where they are – because they have suffered so much for so many years.”
The years of physical and mental abuse in prison have taken their toll on the freed Christian prisoners, and many released are in a poor physical condition and suffer from trauma. One man suffered heatstroke in prison due to the scorching temperatures and lack of water. He was finally released to a hospital when he was at the point of death. He now has problems with his speech, is unable to move his arms and legs properly, and requires the aid of a walking frame.
A young woman, only 16 at the time of her arrest and now 28, is struggling alone to adjust to her freedom because her parents died during her 12-year imprisonment.
“Sometimes they get lost – sometimes they don’t know where they are – because they have suffered so much for so many years,” Dr Berhane told Barnabas Fund. “The only thing that gives them strength is their faith. They still pray – they don’t question their faith.”
We can also rejoice that God has overruled in the release of our brothers and sisters, praise God that He has sustained the Christians of Eritrea over decades of persecution, and give thanks for their faithful witness. Ask that God will provide all their needs and continue to uphold them in their faith.