South African Christians should use their extensive religious freedom to share the Gospel at every opportunity said Filmon Tesfai, a Christian health professional who has been jailed four times and suffered torture for his faith in his home country, Eritrea.
Since escaping from his homeland in the Horn of Africa seven months ago and coming to SA to join his wife, Sharon, and son Daniel, who fled to SA nine months earlier, he has been grabbing opportunities to educate SA believers about religious persecution in Eritrea.
Most South African Christians he has spoken to do not know where Eritrea is, let alone that it is rated by persecuted-church ministry Open Doors as the seventh most dangerous country in the world to be a Christian, said Filmon.
Ironically, the Department of Home Affairs in Durban turned down an application for asylum by his medical doctor wife Sharon, Filmon said in an interview in Port Elizabeth yesterday, where he intends to apply for refugee status. He said the response in Durban, that they were not aware of persecution in Eritrea, was “very shocking” because in most parts of the world Eritrean Christians were granted instant asylum. He said they were challenging the Home Affairs decision in the courts.
Filmon said it was very important for the church in South Africa to become aware of the persecution of believers in Eritrea and to pray for them and support them “because we are one body in Christ and when one part of the body suffers the other should support”.
The Eritrean government outlawed worship outside of Islam and the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran Church in 2002, driving all other Christian churches underground. Thousands of Christians have since been arrested and jailed without trial.
Filmon said that citizens paid tithes to the government which then paid the Orthodox Church, which was hence under its control and complicit in the persecution of protestant churches. He said the Orthodox Church has been the state church for 1 700 years and accounts for about 90% of the country’s approximately 50% Christian population. The other 50% are Muslim.
Filmon said that he and other Eritrean Christians who had been imprisoned and tortured considered it an honour to suffer for Christ. He said despite his tough experiences, including being held with 11 others in a metal shipping container under threat of execution, and being kept in a stinking underground prison where it was difficult to breathe because of a shortage of oxygen, he considered his own sufferings minor compared with others who were still in jail after 15 years or who had died as martyrs. Many pastors had been abducted on the street and simply disappeared, he said.
He came to Christ in 2001 — a year before the outlawing of Protestant churches — after witnessing an amazing transformation that had taken place in his soldier elder brother, who told him how Christ gave him peace. He attended a church service with his brother and gave his life to Christ.
In 2005, like all Grade 12 pupils in Eritrea, he was serving in the military while completing his schooling. He was part of a group of young leaders involved in encouraging other believers at the harsh, desert military camp, Sawa, near the Sudan border, where they were based. Bibles were confiscated during searches and the Christians resorted to tearing out pages of the Bible and sharing them among themselves or hiding pages of the Bible in secular books.
Many Christians were arrested during a crackdown at the camp and Filmon was one of 12 leaders who were held in a metal shipping container near the office of a general who commanded the base. A person close to the general, who was a secret Christian, tipped them off that the general had ordered their execution by shooting in three days time.
“We prayed and fasted about our situation and God intervened. After three days, the general decided to postpone our execution for two months,” Filmon said.
God intervened again after two months when, amidst tensions with Sudan, the camp authorities released the captive leaders.
In 2006, while studying at university in the capital city, Asmara, Filmon was active in encouraging fellow Christian students. During a fresh wave of persecution 53 students were arrested. He was among seven leaders from that group who were jailed in a tiny cell that was unbearably hot and lice-infested.
His Orthodox Church mother was allowed to visit one day and begged him to renounce his faith in order to secure his release. He told her he could not do that. Other prison inmates chastised him for refusing his mother’s desperate pleas.
En-route to a harsher prison, a Scripture verse came to mind — When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze.< (Isaiah 43:2)
That Scripture strengthened him to cope with their arrival at Track B prison on the outskirts of Asmara, where they were kept 10m underground in a hot, stinking, airless cell. Prisoners regularly fainted from lack of air and had to be revived.
“I was there for three days but it felt like three years,” he said.
As punishment, he was assigned to the army. For a month before starting his military duties he was kept in a military prison at Prima Country, near Sawa. It was extremely hot and prisoners were not allowed to wear shoes, which meant that their feet were often subjected to searing heat. Some of the believers he met there had been there for 11 years. A saving grace was that these long-term prisoners had small radios with which they were able to tune in to Christian programmes from Ethiopia and abroad. He listened gratefully as he had not been able to read a Bible for eight months.
Some time after he started his military duties in the 23rd Division, he was assigned to assist a colonel who had a reputation for brutality and for arresting pastors. One day the colonel asked him to set up a certain laptop computer. When Filmon switched on the computer he was amazed to discover it had belonged to his pastor — Pastor Tesfatsion — who had been arrested five to six years before and whose whereabouts were unknown.
Filmon said he played an audio file on the laptop — it turned out to be a recording of an interrogation of his pastor by the colonel. He played the audio and heard the colonel ask: “How are you?” Then he heard his pastor reply: “I’m fine and good like a lion in a den.”
This bold statement by his beloved pastor who had taught him and baptised him caused his faith and courage to leap, he said. He spent six months in the army before he was released and able to return to his studies.
He recalls one day, while he was teaching some Christians in a house church, a man arrived and said he wanted to come to Christ. What was he to do? In Eritrea you don’t simply evangelise because the government sent spies masquerading as seekers. That time he decided to teach the “seeker”, knowing that if he was caught he could be jailed for years.
That time he did end up teaching a spy. He learned from his wife that somehow, she knew that spy. About 10 years later Filmon men him in the street and the man told him that he was not a Christian but a government agent who had been sent to spy on him. But he said that “seeing your sincerity, something prevented me from reporting on you”. At that time the agent was targeting the Orthodox Church.
Sometimes, when it became too dangerous to gather in house churches, he would teach in cafes, hoping that they just looked like a group of friends chatting over coffee. Once while teaching in a cafe he overheard an agent, who was also “drinking coffee” there, phoning security to come and arrest them. They ran away and escaped.
He and Sharon married in 2016. In two of his times in prison he had encountered her as a fellow prisoner — not realising that one day she would be his wife. Being married and having their first child, presented new threats because it made their status as independent Christians more evident. Traditionally state-approved Christians had elaborate baptism celebrations for their babies at their homes. When neighbours and their maid noticed that they did not have a baptism event for Daniel they realised they were independent Christians.
They learned that their maid was planning to report them to the government and it became urgent for Sharon and their child to leave the country. There were paperwork difficulties with leaving as the children of independent Christians did not get birth certificates. But in a risky venture, they successfully exploited a technical loophole that made it easier for housewives to get a passport. Then Sharon, dressed as a Muslim, went to the South African embassy and secured a tourist visa and flew to South Africa.
Once during the nine months he stayed in Eritrea without his family, somebody overheard him talking to other believers about helping Christians in prison. Suddenly they were surrounded by five government agents who chased them through the downtown streets. They got away but his friends urged him to escape the country as it was becoming too risky for him to stay.
They prayed for a way for Filmon to get out of the country. But it would not be easy. Should he risk crossing the border knowing that he may trigger a landmine? Or should he pay large amounts of money to smugglers to help him escape, knowing they may not be trustworthy?
Then suddenly, last year, a peace agreement was signed between Eritrea and Ethiopia, ending 20 years of hostilities and the border was opened for a short period as a gesture of goodwill to allow people who had been separated to communicate with one another. Filmon was among the first people to cross the border into Ethiopia and somehow in the confusion of that window of opportunity, he managed to fly from Ethiopia to South Africa. That escape hatch has since been closed.
Filmon said he was relieved to be free but troubled by the ongoing persecution in his homeland. More believers had been arrested in recent months and recently the government had cracked down on the Catholic Church because they had confronted the state. Normally the government was scared to touch the Catholic Church because of its powerful international connections but, provoked by the church’s challenge, it had seized a number of Catholic hospitals. Filmon said he had supervised some of those hospitals and they were the best in the country and their seizure was very sad.
Besides the couple’s challenge of securing refugee status in South Africa, Sharon also has the problem of not being able to work as a doctor because the Eritrean government is holding her degree papers. Currently she has to renew her temporary status in SA every six months and she will have to pass an exam set by the Health Professional Council of SA before she can practice here.
Filmon says he is currently making the most of opportunities to speak in churches in SA about the persecution of Christians in Eritrea.
“South Africans shouldn’t take their freedom here for granted. Reading a Bible was a luxury in Eritrea. Here we can read the Bible, pray openly and evangelise.
“When I first came here somebody asked me to share my testimony and I told him my story in a very low voice because I was afraid. Then I went on a bus and somebody was praying out loud on the bus.
“You can share the Gospel here and nobody arrests you. No spies are sent to you. When we have such freedom we have to use it. We should never be reluctant to share the Gospel.”