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Eritrea: When There Seems to Be No Light at the End of the Tunnel

September 29, 2017 by Joshua Pease in

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

19 responses to “Until We Find Our Way Back”

  1. This article is incendiary nonsense. how low will people stoop to deface the reputation of this poor, resourceful, vigilant nation? after many failed attempts, the new trend is to target Eritrea’s religious freedom record (even though Eritrea is possibly the safest place to practice Christianity and Islam on the planet).

    Even the writing and journalistic integrity is awful. There are contradictions in the piece like “A Christian who is not a member of the recognized and compliant churches can have their children admitted into school”. Is the reader supposed to believe this is good or bad? Is this a typo from a lazy ham handed SJW? There are no sources, no locations, no referrals..NOTHING. This whole thing is a joke.

    • Dear Charlotte Observer,
      Your comment was 100% of negative-content. Do you enjoy reading an article which described Christian persecution? Got any compassion in your heart?
      FYI, Eritrea is not the safest place to practice Christianity.

      • My comment was critical of this idiotic article. I don’t care if you find it “negative”. Why would anyone enjoy reading about ANY persecution? What is your point? I actually know Eritrea very well from firsthand experience, unlike you. I don’t accept the garbage being disseminated here and I don’t appreciate losers like you replying to me without addressing any of the points in my original comment.

          • If you read my comment and only perceive that I am “full of bitterness”…than you are full of ignorance. POINT BLANK!

          • All of the sudden, my comments are subject to being “approved by Open Doors USA”…..hmmmm I wonder why??

        • Dear Charlotte,
          This lengthy reply is brief compared to what I would like to say, but I cant leave your posts unanswered.

          Your comments are, quite frankly, incredulous. They reveal an ignorance of Eritrea (in spite of your 1st hand experience), and global Christian persecution in general. Whatever your Eritrean experience is/was, it’s clear that it was limited. Apparently you didn’t have the benefit of the bigger picture.

          Eritrea & northern Ethiopia together was where the ancient kingdom of Aksum was established. It was later replaced with Abyssinia. During the colonization of Africa, Eritrea was claimed by the Italians. After WW II the UN decided that it would be a federation of Ethiopia. A LONG war for independence (and the deaths of tens of thousands of Eritreans & Ethiopians) followed.

          After the battle for independence from Ethiopia in the early 90’s, it looked like peace & hope were restored — and they were in some ways . . . for awhile. The country was abounding with optimism and celebrations were plentiful. But in 1998, another conflict arose with Ethiopia: two more years of fighting and thousands more were killed.

          The Eritrean Liberation Front, which basically led the bloody battle for independence, became the ruling party. In very short order, the freedoms they had fought & died for … the freedoms they had been promised, were short-circuited, and eliminated piece by piece: speech, religion, etc, were gone as quickly as they came. Eritrea joined the ranks of some of the most radically repressive & restrictive nations on the planet.

          The outcome for unregistered, independent Christians was harsh, much greater than the public political perspective initially portrayed. Deceptive leaders spoke with a “forked tongue,” and Christians were squeezed — some tighter than others depending on how well they were monitered. The quiet ones fared better than those who were more, shall we say, obstreperous about their faith. They became targets for the obdurate rulers. Many of them ended up in prison for years. Some are still there.

          The idea that Eritrea is “possibly the safest place to ptactice Christianity and Islam on the planet” doesnt begin to square with reality, UNLESS they are officially registered as one of the state-approved churches. Islam is no problem. The recognized Orthodox Church is no problem. The “Evangelical” Luthern Church is no problem. But refuse cave to the pressure — identify and align with one of those entities — and try to live out a personal faith in Jesus without a governmet sanctioned label, and you’ll likely spend a few years (or the rest of your life) in a metal shipping container enjoying the company of rats, fleas, flies, and a vast assortment of other creepy, crawling, slithering critters

          Your impression that some people might “enjoy reading about ANY persecution,” completely misconstrues “the point.” NO ONE with their head screwed on straight and their heart in the right place enjoys reading about persecution. Indeed, we wish there wasn’t anything to read about!

          But ignorance — or worse, denial — doesn’t resolve or even slightly improve the situation. Reality is what it is, and our awareness of it enables us to pray more personally, specifically, and effectively for our Christian family members who hurt deeply, have experienced great loss and deprivation, and suffered immeasurably profound grief because loved ones, family members, and friends & neighbors have been murdered — often right before their very eyes.

          I don’t have the exact stats at my finger tips, there are probably around 70 countries (give or take) in which followers of Jesus experience persecution and/or suffering of one kind or another, to one degrree or another.

          The story you read, Charlotte, is anything but nonsense, and its definitely not a joke. (At least no one is laughing.) It has absolutely nothing to do with any attempt to degrade an already degraded country. But the screws have definitely been put to independent believers who refuse to compromise their faith in and allegiance to Jesus Christ.

          Oh, and by the way, wouldnt you agree that referring to people who disagree with you as “losers” might be an itsy-bitsy, teensy-weensy, yellow-polka-dot-bit defensive and arrogant, or is it just me?

          • Thanks for correcting…I noticed that ridiculous post yesterday but was on the way out of the office. I was determined to find this article this AM to try and put my 2 cents in, but you did a much better job than I could. I read “Song of the Nightingale” by Helen Berhane. She was in a shipping container for years, experiencing severe persecution and torture.

          • Thanks for the note. I, too, was deeply bothered by her myopic perspective. Yes, “Song of the Nightengale” is an excellent read, opening our eyes to contemporary conditions in Eritrea.
            You may recall her writing about “Esther” her cell mate for some time — another Christian. I read earlier this week in a prayer notice that she was offered a chance for release, but chose to remain in prison in order to continue ministering to other prisoners. Wow! Talk about commitment to a God-appointed mission!
            Happy Thanksgiving
            Very Merry CHRISTmas.

    • hmmm, actually in the article I read it said “cannot have their child admitted into school.” Regardless of any typos, you might want to check out the Council on Foreign Relations article of 9-16-16 titled Authoritarianism in Eritrea and the migrant crisis. Evangelicals aren’t part of the few select “sanctioned” Christians churches.

    • Dear friend,
      What brought you to this site? Do you have personal ties to Eritrea? Why are you so personally hurt by this article?

      • What brought you to this site?
        -I google Eritrea everyday to see who is writing about it and why because I am Eritrean and I care about my country very much.

        Do you have personal ties to Eritrea?
        Yes, I am Eritrean. My family is Eritrean. I visit Eritrea regularly and the constant fake news wears down on me. Frivolous reporting and and baseless accusations must be met with fierce rejection. There are many narratives being introduced in the media that demonize Eritrea and us Eritreans are sick and tired of it! Anybody with a decent education will know the many sins of journalism this article and many others on this website commit (no citations, no author name, no primary sources, etc…) This is a disgrace!

        Why are you so hurt by this article?
        -The article is a farce. I am livid with the anonymous writer (only a liar and a low integrity “journalist” would refuse to claim their work). If you search for Eritrea on this website, you are hit with a barrage of negative articles that demonize this beautiful country and it’s beautiful culture. Eritrea is a very special place and I am supremely offended by Open Doors USA’s campaign to tear down the credibility and respect of it’s leaders (who are doing MANY wonderful things to ensure peace and prosperity for ALL it’s citizens, regardless of faith). My family is Christian and this type of divisive article is extremely offensive to us! Eritreans have a longstanding culture of living in peace with our many tribes and religions. We wont let ANYONE split us apart like they did all over Africa and the Middle East.

        This article/website/cowardly writer who remains nameless is on a mission to defame the character of Eritrea and it’s leaders (who are actually doing all the right things, contrary to what is reported by the so-called major outlets). If you have any understanding of geo-politics and the history of Eritrea, you would know exactly why this mission of deceit was launched. I

  2. These stories are heart-breaking. We are simply unable to give financially, but please know that you and our brothers & sisters are in our prayers. Thank you for what OD is doing to minister to these precious family members.

  3. Open Doors USA, I have replied to Matt’s long tirade and my comment does not appear on your website. It seems my comment is now pending approval from the admins. Why is it my other comments were not subject to such scrutiny? Is it because you are doing some damage control because I exposed you?

    It is incredibly hypocritical and disgraceful to say “The Eritrean regime is authoritarian and intolerant towards any form of association, dissent and free expression” while simultaneously behaving in this manner on your own platform!!!

    Everything you write about Eritrea is nonsense and you have been made! I am watching closely. Get your facts straight!

    • Charlotte, if you are concerned about the above piece giving a false representation of Eritrea, I suggest you have ago at Wikipedia as it also paints the country in the same light regards to its government and freedom to worship.apart from the state recognised churches.

      • Also see “Song of the Nightingale’ by Helen Berhane. She experienced years of torture, imprisoned in a metal shipping container full of lice, fleas, rats simply for proclaiming The Lord Jesus Christ as her Lord and Savior.

  4. @disqus_BHfG9TBZFc:disqus i responded to your comment but now my comments are being censored/pending approval. If you really care about this topic, we can talk somewhere else (a place with actual freedom of speech and expression). Let me know…

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