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Caught Between Duty & Delight in Eritrea

October 9, 2017 by Sarah Cunningham in ,

We sat down recently 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 Africa’s most repressive state—Eritrea.

At first, her 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 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 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. You can click here to give to support believers like Ruth who are facing extreme persecution for our shared faith today.

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!
            Blessings.
            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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