Another wave of Christians has been arrested in Eritrea, bringing the total imprisoned for their faith to more than 400. One former prisoner describes systematic torture and a vision of Christ that sustained her.
A partner of UK-based Release International, which supports the persecuted church, reports that 44 Christians – 39 women and five men – were seized as they were gathering in their homes.
The group are being held at Mai Serwa prison on the outskirts of the capital, Asmara.
‘Eritrea is like a giant prison,’ says Release International partner Dr Berhane Asmelash. ‘The country is filled with jails. It is like North Korea.’ He estimates 415 Christians are now in prison for their faith.
Many Christians are held without charge and detained indefinitely. Torture and brutality are commonplace. Some Christians are held in shipping containers in the desert, where they bake by day and freeze by night. Many have been in prison for more than a decade, just for gathering for prayer in their homes.
The East African dictatorship shut down most of its churches in May 2002, outlawing every religion except Sunni Islam, Eritrean Orthodox, Roman Catholicism and the Lutheran Church. Christians who continue to worship in banned congregations are regarded as enemies of the state.
Among those detained and tortured for her faith is Twen Theodros, who has recently been released.
Twen was just 21 when she was arrested and had been a Christian for only two years. She was incarcerated for the next 16 years and suffered intense persecution for her faith. Yet she emerged victorious.
The police seized Twen after they spotted her leaving a Christian meeting in February 2004. They jailed her for a month. It was a stark warning.
She says: ‘Was I ready to forsake my family, my education, my job, all the things I love the most? And what about my life? I remembered the Bible verse about forsaking everything for Christ, and I made my decision then there and then.’
Twen was arrested again later that year during a prayer vigil on New Year’s Eve. She was locked into a shipping container for almost three years at Mai Serwa prison near Asmara, where the latest wave of Christians to be arrested are currently being held.
Among her fellow detainees was Helen Berhane, the gospel singer. The two became close friends.
During her time in that shipping container Twen recalls: ‘Many believers, mainly teenagers, came in and out of the prison, renouncing their faith in order to get released. These included pastors. So the prison officers put pressure on me, saying: ‘We will make you [renounce your faith] by force. If you do not comply, you will die.’
But Twen recalled the Bible verse, Matthew 10:32-33: ‘Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also knowledge before my Father in heaven. But whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.’
Twen says she felt the Holy Spirit in her heart. ‘I started to rejoice. God wanted to show his glory in my life.’
She was separated from the other Christian prisoners and then sent to another prison on the Red Sea Coast, one of the hottest places in Eritrea. Twen was thrown into an underground cell, but instead of despair, she found encouragement. She says: ‘I had a heart full of joy, because I was with other Christians.’
Despite the searing heat, Twen and the other prisoners were given just one cup of water each day.
And her guards threatened to make her suffer unless she renounced her faith. They began the beatings in the hottest season.
One night, they took Twen and others to an area where thorns covered the ground and made them run across barefoot. Then they set about systematically beating each of the women.
‘They were well trained in torture,’ says Twen. ‘They beat us in one place in our bodies again and again so we would not pass out and find relief. They wanted maximum pain.’
They had a single aim: to force Twen to renounce her faith. But she told them: ‘God gave me life; to give Him my life is a small thing.’ So they beat her again.
She says: ‘I received grace to endure the pain, and when I looked at the people who were beating me, I realised that although I was suffering now, this would take me to glory.
‘My torturers were laughing, but I knew their end would be loss, so I started to love them. At that moment a verse of scripture came into my heart, and I prayed: “Forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.” I finished that night in victory!’
She admits there were times when she was overwhelmed with fear, but then God gave her a vision.
‘A man, who looked like Jesus, was holding a girl in his arms. The girl was happy and having fun, but the man was in deep distress, because he was protecting her from the beating.
‘The sticks were not falling on me but on Jesus, so I was able to endure the beating. He was always with me in the suffering, so that even in that we are victorious.’
Once, the beating was so harsh that Twen saw her soul separated from her body and heard the singing of angels.
As well as having to deal with her own physical pain, she was made to watch as others suffered brutal treatment. The guards beat twin sisters together so they would have to listen to each other’s screams. After two hours, both lost consciousness. Twen was holding one of those sisters in her arms as she died.
Twen was finally released as part of a limited amnesty for 200 prisoners of faith.
When she reflects on her time in prison and the suffering she witnessed and endured, she has this message for Christians in the free world: ‘Your prayers saved me. This victory is a victory for all of us.
‘The grace of God made everything possible. I feel so blessed to participate in Christ’s suffering. Even now, I do not have any hatred against those who put me in prison and tried to make my life miserable. I love them.’
In Eritrea and around the world, Christians are under increasing pressure from hostile governments and militant groups.
Eritrea is named as a country of concern in Release International’s annual Persecution Trends report.
‘We call on Christians to stand with our brothers and sisters in Eritrea as they continue to go through this dark night of the soul,’ says Release International CEO Paul Robinson. ‘They need our prayers.
‘Freedom of faith is the cornerstone of all human freedoms. Release International continues to call on Eritrea to set free every Christian prisoner and permit full freedom of faith once again in their country.’
UK-based Release International is active in around 30 countries. It works through partners to prayerfully, pastorally, and practically support the families of Christian martyrs, prisoners of faith and their families, as well as Christians suffering oppression and violence, and Christians forced to flee.