Eritrea: When There Seems to Be No Light at the End of the Tunnel
Shiden* lies on his bed and stares at the roof. It is dawn, and outside he can hear the birds chirping combine with the bustle of the city of Asmara (capital of Eritrea). But Shiden has been awake for hours. Like most nights, he has hardly slept.
He can hear his elderly mother get up from her bed, sighing and grunting. Caring for Shiden is becoming more and more taxing on her aging body.
From the kitchen, Shiden can smell the aroma of freshly roasted and ground coffee mixing with the familiar whiff of frying spices, but he has no urge to get up. Instead, he turns onto his side and stares at the wall. Since his release from prison, the darkness around Shiden has become impenetrable.
Shiden became a Christian when he was in his late teens after watching Jesus change his brother’s life. His father chased John* from home when he heard he had left their religion.After his father died, John moved back home and learned, to his joy, that Shiden had also decided to follow Christ.
Shiden knew this was dangerous. His culture was deeply suspicious of independent Christians, and the government regularly imprisoned people who worshiped outside of Islam or the three government-approved mainline churches. Shiden had heard the horror stories of what happened to Christians in prison but was willing to pay the price for freedom in Christ. The price came sooner than he thought.
In his early 20s, Shiden and 40 others were caught worshipping in secret. The group was arrested and Shiden, after two years in a desert prison, was moved to the notorious Mai Serwa prison camp outside Asmara. Shiden was packed into a metal shipping container with 30-40 other people. There was one toilet break ten minutes a day, during which the prisoners were led to a nearby shrub to relieve themselves. The lack of sanitation caused regular bouts of diarrhea. The suffering was beyond words.
When asked why he refused to abandon his faith Shiden said “I won’t leave the faith because I live by what I believe. I served this country faithfully and honestly. But my belief is my personal belief, and you have to respect that. If you don’t, I am willing to pay for it.”
They left him alone for six months and then called him again. Handing him a sheet of paper they told him to choose: “I believe” or “I don’t believe.” He chose “I believe.”
Shiden was eventually moved to a general prison in Barentu, where he continued to suffer severe punishment for his faith for a decade. He endured solitary confinement for six months straight in a very small cell where he couldn’t stretch his arms or stand up straight.
One day, with no explanation, Shiden was released from Barentu; however, even when “freed” Christians like Shiden continue to live as prisoners. Shiden was watched all the time. What did he talk to others about? Did he pray? Did he have a Bible with him?
Spies discovered a few precious sections of Bible Shiden hid under his blanket and Shiden was placed in solitary confinement again for three months. During those three months, he saw no one. Once a day, a cup of tea and a slice of bread appeared through a gap in the door. All Shiden had to think about were his friends who’d managed to escape the country without him, and whether anyone knew he was still alive.
Shiden hasn’t been the same since.
One day Shiden was sent home without explanation. His family was delighted to have him back and lavished him with care, but it was obvious Shiden wasn’t well.
He shared with his brother John bits of what he had been through – details that left John weeping like a child. “I was so proud of him for not denying Christ through all of those years, but I could not believe the terrible suffering he had been put through.”
Shiden’s family realized that returning to normal life after so many years in prison would not be easy. This wasn’t the story of a faith that triumphed of persecution they’d hoped. It was a story of a broken man.
Shiden entered prison just barely past his teenage years. When he left he was over 30-years-old. Shiden had missed out on education and a job that would enable him to make a living. The future was hopeless.
“Since his release, we have seen him change in front of our eyes day-by-day. He has fallen into deep depression, and there are times when he is completely irrational. We have to watch him all the time, even at night, to make sure that he does not harm himself. It is very upsetting,” John said.
Shiden’s story is just one of many. There are thousands of Eritrean Christians facing similar challenges. Open Doors regional directors are tasked with not only supporting Christians in prison, but recovery for when they come out.
One OD Field Director for the work in East Africa commented: “Our adversary, the Devil, walks around like a roaring lion, trying to destroy our faith. Our brothers and sisters in Eritrea desperately need our prayer for the Lord’s healing and the development of resilient Christian communities that are able to offer emotional and practical support to injured Christians like Shiden in the midst of the current difficulties. Open Doors is offering practical support through local partners to help get the church there.”
Due to security concerns, few details about Open Doors’ programs in Eritrea can be provided. OD is offering business training to believers to help them find ways to earn an income and soon will begin equipping key leaders in trauma care, but the work is dangerous and slow. OD’s focus is protecting the very small entry it has in the Christian community of Eritrea right now.
One way you can help is by donating to Open Doors’ Eritrean operations by clicking here.
* names changed for security concerns