Originally published in Christian Today.
A young Christian woman from Eritrea has described how she was imprisoned in a shipping container, tortured and beaten and starved – all because she refused to stop saying the name of Jesus.
Helen Berhane is from Eritrea, one of the worst countries in the entire world for Christian persecution.
She found asylum in Denmark after spending years locked in a shipping container because she would not deny her Christian faith.
When guards tortured and beat her and told her to stop saying the name of Jesus, she simply sang and spoke more, trying to convert them too.
She was in London today, at a Foreign and Commonwealth Office conference on preventing violent extremism, to tell religious leaders and government officials from throughout the world her horrific story of deadly and relentless persecution – all because of her unshakeable faith.
According to the charity Open Doors, Eritrea is number three on the list of nations worse for persecution of Christians. Of a population of 5.4 million, 2.6 million are Christians. The main religion is Islam. Some churches are permitted but undeground house churches are strictly forbidden.
Helen Berhane came to the attention of security services when she made a CD and video promoting the message of Jesus as the “cure for the world”.
She said: “The government didn’t like that.”
Without the gospel, nothing is possible, she said. “We can try but we will fail.”
Her church was raided and she and other young people were tortured. “Prison is not new for me. I have been in and out many times.”
The church was closed. “It was a good opportunity for me to evangelise in prison. We started telling them about the gospel. Telling them that Jesus loves them. In the evening I was singing.”
She was punished, tortured and sent to a military prison full of young people vomiting, crying. She was held in a small cell in solitary confinement, basically a hole dug in the ground with a trap door.
When she prayed for her guards, she was moved to a prison of shipping containers that functioned as an asylum for the insane. It was freezing at night, baking hot in the day with no lights at all inside.
The bathroom was a patch of ground outside the container, in full view of the guards. The prisoners were fed in the dark on gruel made mainly of water, chilli and salt.
“So I said the only thing we can do now is sing. We worship God because he gave us life. We started singing, thank you God for this cold, this toilet, thank you God for everything.
The guards were shocked when we sang inside the metal container. So they opened the container and tortured us with this black metal stick that burned our bodies.”
She and other women singing with her were chained up inside the container in contorted positions.
“It was very harsh. They torture you all the time. You get stomach ache all the time.”
She was placed with one woman who had gone completely mad.
“It was a kind of test. I know in the Bible it says everything is good for us believers, but I asked, in this what is good? That this woman beats me all the time?
“I didn’t give up because I must follow our father’s footsteps.”
She strengthened her resolve by meditating on the Bible passage where Abraham prepares to sacrifice his son Isaac.
“If it is asking me to sacrifice something in my life, I can sacrifice for God. To survive like me is very rare. Many die because of this torture. It is not easy.”
Somehow, she had found material to write on, and began sending letters to the guards urging them to follow Jesus, quoting the Bible.
“They found what I was sending to the guards so they tortured me and put me in solitary confinement and asked me to sit in the dirt. They asked for my Bible. I said it is in my mind. So they said they must destroy it. They beat my head and everything, and they were shouting, shouting.”
“For me to be tortured for Christ, it is amazing. So they took me and said we know you are teaching many prisoners but you must stop teaching guards. I was in prison for three years now, for preaching the gospel. I said no. Even for you, you need God.”
“So he took the stick to torture me.”
She reminded herself that when Jesus was tortured, he said nothing.
“I kept silent. The guard tortured me countless times. He said I need your hands to torture them because they are the ones writing. They beat me everywhere. My whole body started shaking. They gave me five minutes rest and said Helen you must stop saying Jesus.
“I said no. I accept him until death. I said I cannot stop saying Jesus, he is my life. My body was red and blue. The guard was the one exhausted.
He said Helen, what do you think? I said, you are doing your job, I am doing my Father’s job. I couldn’t stand. I was taken to the container again.”
She was finally sent to hospital because she couldn’t walk, and from there sent home to her family. She fled to Sudan. Her daughter followed her, travelling with nomads across the Sahara. Denmark accepted her asylum request, where she lives now.
Human rights minister Baroness Anelay, who hosted the conference at the Foreign Office, said: “Helen’s story was of the power of faith to overcome the most appalling torture and treatment.”
Her story had added to her determination to help create a world so that whatever faith a person practices, they can do so in safety.
Dr Khataza Gondwe, team leader for Africa and the Middle East for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, the charity that helped Helen get to Denmark in 2008, said her story validated the findings of the recent UN human rights commission of inquiry into Eritrea.
“Her testimony never fails to move me. What is particularly moving is the fact that this is emblematic of what is happening to many Christians in Eritrea. Others have suffered the same thing she was describing, being tied in contorted positions and left for lengthy periods. Earlier this year a person was similarly tied and left so long they had to have an arm amputated.”