On July 17, Eritrea released 35 Christians (11 women and 24 men) from prison, causing speculation as to whether this event could signal a change in the country’s persecution of Christians, According to Voice of the Martyrs Korea board chair Hyun Sook Foley, however, while the release of any Christian prisoners is a cause for rejoicing, the recent releases do not reflect a change for the repressive state but rather a calculated political effort to improve its diplomatic relations with its more pro-Christian neighbor, Ethiopia.
“According to one of our ministry partners, the 35 Christians who were released were young people who were not senior leaders in the Eritrean church,” board chair Foley explains. “They signed statements promising they would no longer attend meetings at unregistered churches. Usually signing this kind of statement is enough to warrant release from prison. It is significant that the government released these 35 Christians and not Christian leaders who have been imprisoned since the government’s 2002 anti-Christian crackdown.”
Regardless of the government’s motivation, however, board chair Foley says that the prisoner release is both good news and a call to further prayer.
“While the release of any Christian from prison is good news, we shouldn’t allow the release of these 35 prisoners to overshadow the hundreds of Christian leaders who are still in Eritrean prisons,” board chair Foley cautions.
According to board chair Foley, many of Eritrea’s evangelical pastors remain imprisoned without formal charges or trials, locked in shipping containers in the Mai Serwa prison camps. These metal shipping containers sit in the middle of the desert and become super-heated during the day and frigid during the night. Board chair Foley, who has worked with several former prisoners before, explains that conditions in these prison camps are inhumane.
“Although each shipping container is small and can only fit ten to twelve people, twenty to thirty people are sometimes crammed into one container,” board chair Foley says. “There is only one bucket in the corner for human waste, and prisoners are only allowed outside twice per day.”
Board chair Foley reports that prisoners are regularly tortured.
“Prisoners are tortured so brutally and for such a long time that they are released with permanent disabilities like paralysis,” board chair Foley explains. “Some die from torture wounds; others are casually executed.”
Despite this, the Eritrean church continues to prosper.
“Every Eritrean Christian knows they can be released from prison by signing a document saying they’ll stop evangelizing and attending unregistered churches. However, many Eritrean Christians choose to remain faithful to Christ in prison,” board chair Foley explains. “But these faithful Christians have been in prison for more than fourteen years.”
Here are some of the faithful Christians for whom board chair Foley requests we pray:
Twen Theodros (Esther)Arrested: March 2004
Considered to be a key senior women’s leader in prison, Twen was imprisoned in the same shipping container as the gospel singer, Helen Berhane. In prison, Twen took beatings in the place of other prisoners and cared for the sick and wounded. Prisoners who have met Twen say that she is a determined follower of Jesus and willing to stay in prison as long as God allows her to serve there.
Haile NayzgiArrested: May 2004
The senior pastor of a Full Gospel church (an underground church that consists of 120 to 150 house churches) and father of three children. Pastor Nayzgi has been denied contact with his family. When friends and family attempted to take food and clothing to him in August 2004, they were told he was no longer there. Pastor Nayzgi has been moved to many different prisons ever since, but formal charges against him have never been released.
Dr. Kiflu GebremeskelArrested: May 2004
A former mathematics lecturer and department and faculty head at the University of Asmara. Dr. Gebremeskel became a full-time pastor at the Southwest Full Gospel church in 1999 and was arrested in 2004. His wife and four children have been refused permission to visit him.
Kidane WeldouArrested: March 2005
The senior pastor of a Full Gospel church and father of four daughters. Pastored a church for several years before arrested and imprisoned without a formal charge.
To learn more about the church in Eritrea, read Voice of the Martyrs Korea’s Eritrea Country profile. You can also visit the Voice of the Martyrs Korea website (www.vomkorea.kr) to read the profiles of the more than 70 other countries around the world where Christians are persecuted.