Recently, an Open Doors ministry partner sat down with Ruth, a wife to an imprisoned church leader and mom in her 30s, in a secret location. A scarf covering her head, no one can hear what she shares with us.
We assure Ruth we will do whatever we can to protect her identity as she gives us a peek into her life as a Christian in Eritrea–what is becoming known as the “North Korea” of Africa because of its oppression toward its citizens, paranoid dictatorship, and obliteration of religious freedom.
At first, Ruth’s words come hesitantly, each carefully considered. But then, as she relaxes, the words flow easier, even eagerly, like passengers emerging from a long journey in a packed train. She is free at last to utter those things that have been kept inside far too long.
“I was born into a Christian family. But in 1994, when I was in my teens, I entered into a personal relationship with Christ and started following Him wholeheartedly. At the time of my salvation, the church in Eritrea still enjoyed freedom, and wonderful things happened. Many people got saved, and there was great joy. Since then, I have come to know what it is to worship God both in freedom and in secret.”
Pressure from the State
But eight years later, the government closed all independent churches. It ushered in a time of severe suffering for all those who chose to worship outside of the state-sanctioned Islam or Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran churches.
“I married a God-fearing man—a church leader—the year after the church was closed. God blessed us with three children. But the government closed our church and eventually imprisoned my husband.”
Life has become extremely difficult, she explains. Christians do whatever they can to support one another, but everyone is in strife.
“Now, I always worry about him and wonder how he is. I also find it unbearable to see how my three young children miss him. They always cry for baba (Daddy). They sometimes perform poorly in school because they miss their dad so much. It is so hard to care for them by myself. I long for the day that my husband and I can be present together in their lives.”
Raising a child in this setting, where state repression takes on many different forms, has been a challenge.
“When a baby is born in Eritrea, the most important papers you need to have are the child’s birth certificate and vaccination papers. But those mean nothing without a baptism certificate from one of the recognized churches. A Christian who is not a member of the recognized and compliant churches cannot have their children admitted into school. And they won’t have access to any food coupons or any other public services. In this way, it is easy for them to identify those who worship outside of the recognized groups.”
Pressure from society
The government’s closure of the church eroded the unity the Eritrean people gained as they fought side by side for independence from Ethiopia and drove a wedge between people of different religions and denominations.
Christians carry the labels like ‘agents of western imperialists’ and ‘haters of the mother-land.’
“We are peace-loving people who want to worship God in peace. We are normal people of faith,” Ruth stresses, “As Eritrean Christians, we love our country. Being a Christian is about a relationship with God. We do not have any political agenda. All we want is to worship God in freedom.”
But this wished-for reality is far from what Ruth and other believers experience in daily life.
“We feel that we face double persecution because there is not only pressure from the government but also from the society. They can’t wait for us to be caught worshipping in secret. In our neighborhood, we constantly face pressure, so we go about our everyday life with caution and fear.”
Unfortunately, Ruth and other Christians are often treated as second-class citizens.
“Most of us have finished our national service (Eritreans are required to serve in the military) and would have a right to benefit from public services, yet we are excluded from it.
Even if you are able to find a job, you have to be so careful because once they know that you are an independent Christian, they watch you closely for any mistakes that would allow them to fire you. The aim of society is to make it as hard as possible for us.
The Isolation of Children
In school, Ruth says, the children are isolated as well.
“In Eritrea, people have started wearing religious necklaces, and because we do not wear them, they label us as heretics. They intimidate the children in this way.
“I have to teach my children the gospel behind closed doors,” Ruth says sadly, “They are too young to understand what is going on. They want to sing loudly and share what they learn at home with their friends at school. One day, security officers visited my house, and one of my children kept singing gospel songs! I had to run and cover her mouth with my hand. It is so hard to teach them the gospel and at the same time tell them to not say anything to other people. This is very confusing for them.”
Squeezed between a sense of duty and dreams of a better future
Through these challenging circumstances, it is apparent that Ruth has learned great wisdom.
“As Christians, we expect to suffer for the gospel. But when the suffering comes, the body complains. We are squeezed between the complaining of the body and the deep knowledge that enduring this suffering is the duty of a Christian.”
Still, she is not without fear.
“I want my children to grow up and be able to worship God in freedom. I have dreams for them and want them to be safe. And I fear what will happen if I am arrested. How will they cope?”
Even as Ruth voices this question, what she says in her next breath makes it obvious she has the answer: “But the love of God is stronger and compels us to worship Him despite the dangers. We know there is a risk but because of our love for the Lord, we cannot stop worshipping Him. We cannot stop praying to Him because we need Him to overcome our difficulties.”
Christians in Eritrea face notoriously harsh circumstances in a nation where human rights are some of the worst in the world already.