Over the years we have often asked supporters to pray that the Lord would give Christians imprisoned for their faith in Eritrea hope in the midst of their suffering and enable them to share the gospel with their persecutors. The story of Aberash is an example of how the Lord answers our prayers for His own glory.
“It is very hard to live without hope! It is the easiest way to die quickly,” the 32-year-old Aberash states with conviction. He speaks from experience. Having spent three years in an Eritrean prison for continuing worship outside of the state-approved religions (Islam or the Orthodox, Catholic or Evangelical Lutheran Churches), he knows exactly what it feels like to lose hope amidst difficult circumstances.
Aberash became a Christian through the testimony of a school friend. While undergoing mandatory military training, he learned that Evangelical Christians are considered enemies of the state. “Not even when the churches were ordered to close did I really believe Christians were truly considered enemies of the state. It did not make sense! It was not until I was arrested that I came to believe it.”
Angry and without hope
It happened in 2011 when a neighbor informed police that Aberash had opened his home for Christian gatherings. “Heavily armed officers came during a prayer meeting. They broke things in the house and confiscated a large sum of cash I had borrowed for my business. I got very angry and tried to resist, so they chained me and took all of us – including five women and one baby – to the police station. For two weeks we were kept without being questioned or charged. I was placed in isolation in a small cell of about 2×2.5m. There was no curtain or mattress – just the bare floor. My family did not know where I was. When they finally found me, my mother could see me only briefly.”
After two months, officials moved the group to another station, but questioning only started after eight months.
“As the group leader, they isolated me and accused me of being a dangerous anti-government agent. When they beat me I responded recklessly because I was so angry. Other Christians reprimanded me and told me to be more like Christ.”
“My family tried everything to get me out. They sold property and borrowed money to negotiate my release. It broke my heart to see the suffering (my imprisonment) caused them. Even though the prison was far from home, they brought me food every day.” At this point, Aberash breaks down into loud sobs with tears streaming down his face. It takes a while to compose himself enough to continue. “They went hungry at times so I could eat. I was embarrassed and felt like a failure. It hurt me to think of their sacrifices.”
“We shared cells with all kinds of people: drunkards, hard-core criminals and the insane. We rarely slept through the night. Privacy was unheard of and that comes with its own humiliation, especially when you had diarrhea which was impossible to prevent due to the poor hygiene.
“We were only allowed out in the sun for 30 minutes on Sundays. That was the highlight of our week because it was also the only day we could see other prisoners. But we were not allowed to speak. So we ‘spoke’ by looking into each other’s eyes!
“After two years I had fallen into deep depression. I was very angry with God and questioned Him. I asked, ‘Why am I in here? I was doing good things for You? So why did You let this happen to me? God, this is not fair. Why did You not protect us?’ I felt I was losing my mind and could not accept what was happening. I had no understanding of Christian persecution.
“One time when I refused to reveal information about other Christian leaders and home cells they chained my legs together for days and beat me many times. I was humiliated and so stressed that I suffered a mild stroke that left me partially paralyzed.
“By then I had lost all hope and decided it was better to die. I went on hunger strike and waited to get weak, sick and die. But instead, I seemed to grow stronger. After more than a week I actually looked better than before. The jailers did not even notice my attempt. I was furious with God.”
Disciplined to hope
“Over time the Lord impressed it very strongly on my heart to stop fighting the experience, to humble myself and to allow myself to be disciplined. I needed patience because He has His own ways and His own time for everything.
“I had no more strength to fight and made peace with God. This is when He taught me to be quiet, to be patient and to have hope in Christ. Everything changed! I got to know God deeper than ever before. I experienced His comfort in a very real way.”
The Lord sent various forms of encouragement.
“People smuggled pages from the Bible into prison for us. Those Bible pages were better than gold! I cannot explain how precious those words were to us! The power of the Bible is real. It became food that kept our souls alive and our minds steady. It kept us sane and strong. Joshua 1:9 was one of my favorites; ‘Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go.’ Whoever was found with pages from the Bible got into great trouble – he was put in chains and tied up for days. But it was worth the pain for us.”
“We also secretly listened to a Christian radio station at night. It was manna from heaven! I also received support in the form of money and clothes from Christians abroad. That was very encouraging and I was surprised that outsiders cared about us.”
The prison officials noticed the change in Aberash’s attitude and appointed him to do maintenance tasks at the prison. For security reasons we cannot share the details of all the opportunities the Lord granted him, but we can tell you that every little thing he changed brought great improvement in the living conditions of the prisoners. Aberash was at peace and felt blessed to be a blessing.
“As I started seeing the small positive changes, I lost the desire to leave prison. We shared the food our families brought with the guards. This opened opportunities for conversation and I found myself counselling many, praying with them and even sharing the gospel. We became like brothers and they started seeing Christians differently. I also helped newly arrested Christians adapt to life in prison.”
One day, out of the blue, Aberash was informed that he would be released.
“I remember shouting (with joy) and hugging my fellow prisoners when I heard the news. We all cried with joy! I could not believe it and was almost out of my mind with joy.”
But it took Aberash many months to adjust to life on the outside. Eventually he started a business and slowly recovered financially and emotionally. Now he uses some of the proceeds of his business to minister to other Christians.
Aberash thanks God for his time in prison. “I feel very lucky to have been arrested because it transformed me. I at first thought it was a curse, but later I saw it as a big blessing as I had opportunity to show Christ’s love and to share the gospel with people I would never have met otherwise: thugs, murderers, poor people, rich people, politicians, all kinds of people because there is equality in prison!”
“I have learned that persecution can either purify or destroy a person’s faith. The outcome depends on the attitude of the person suffering.”
Thank you for partnering with us in prayer and support to Christians like Aberash, who by God’s grace can find hope and purpose, even in prison.
*Name changed for security reasons