Originally published in Faith Wire
A pastor from the East African country of Eritrea, who now resides in Australia, has revealed the horrific treatment many Christians are enduring while locked up in prison in his home country.
“Gabriel” was sentenced to six months in 1998 but ended up serving a full three years — simply because he was a pastor.
He explained to the Barnabus Fund how prisoners were subjected to starvation and brutal manual work, including the monotonous and laborious task of collecting large pieces of stone.
“Sometimes you break the stones with a heavy hammer. You hear a sound here, in your back, because everyone has malnutrition,” he explained. There was psychological torture, too. Gabriel talked about being held, alone, in an old rusty shipping container for weeks on end. Baking hot in the day and freezing cold at night, he became unwell quickly, but the guards refused him medication.
On one occasion, he remembers being beaten “like a donkey” in front of 230 other prisoners “to make them afraid” and set an example to the rest of the believers. Medics in the prison who treated him after each incident urged Gabriel to renounce his Christian faith in order to save his health. He refused.
But he wasn’t the only one. There were countless others who he remembered would stand firm in their faith, even in the face of horrific treatment.
“Whatever you like you can do [to us], for now we are born-again Christians,” one pair of believers used to say to their torturers. Then, after failing to break the spirit of the believers, the guards gave up their campaign of terror and released them saying, “We cannot stop this Christian thing.”
Bibles were also strictly prohibited. Anyone found in possession of the scriptures could expect a severe beating.
It would be naive to think, however, that such horrendous treatment would take no toll on the faith of those persecuted.
“Sometimes you dispute with God, why you let me go through this hardship?” said Gabriel. “But when you start reading the Bible, when you pray devotion daily, automatically your mind clicks, you are in the main way – the way you are supposed to go.”
According to Open Doors USA, there are almost 2.5 million Christians living in the African nation. The charity also lists the levels of persecution as “extreme.”
“Christians are being forced to join the armed forces, and Protestants, in particular, face serious problems with accessing community resources, especially social services provided by the state,” the watchdog explains.
“Individuals from non-traditional church groups, such as evangelicals, face the harshest persecution forms of Christian persecution. Both converts from a Muslim background and cross-denominational converts from an Orthodox background encounter harsh mistreatment from their families and communities.”
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Earlier this year, Faithwire reported on the detention of some 140 Christians, after believers gathered to celebrate the anniversary of their independence day.
The Eritrean government has been at the centre of a widespread human rights crisis in recent years, detaining any person who dares disagree with the ruling party. Though a peace deal with neighbouring Ethiopia has helped, the population still remains in the grip of the totalitarian government.
“The Eritrean Government continues to lock up or forcibly disappear dissenting voices, thus silencing analytical discussions and critical debates,” the Special Rapporteur on human rights in Eritrea told the United Nations General Assembly last year.
“Without any space for the Eritrean people to participate in shaping the country’s future, there is little scope for progress,” Sheila B. Keetharuth added in a report. “Human rights must be put at the heart of peace.”