Eritrea (MNN) — Once admired as an example to the Horn of Africa, Eritrea now struggles with poverty, repression and strife with its neighbors. Borders to two of its three neighboring countries are closed.
Yet, it’s a nation with a patriotic population, fiercely defended and one that finally gained independence after 30 years of war. Eritrea is clearly a beautiful, culture-rich country, with a coastline on the Red Sea, and bordered by Sudan in west, by Ethiopia in south and by Djibouti to the southeast.
Given that context, why would anyone want to leave? Eritrea is also fighting a refugee crisis, one where thousands risk their lives crossing the Sahara or the Mediterranean, just to find sanctuary in Europe.
A U.N.-backed commission assigned to investigate human rights violations in Eritrea is calling for a tribunal or a special court system to hear allegations of crimes by Eritrean leaders. A U.N. report from last June claimed the leaders of the Eritrean government have committed crimes against humanity over more than two decades. In response, Eritrea’s Presidential Adviser denounced the report and said he sees “little value in entering into a polemic with a clearly biased special rapporteur.”
Do those crimes against humanity include trampling religious freedom and persecution? That depends on the scope of the persecution and the target.
Todd Nettleton of the Voice of the Martyrs USA says, “I think all of it is connected because just the basic lack of respect for human rights by the Eritrean regime, that affects not only religious persecution, it affects other human rights issues and abuses as well. Yes, they certainly are linked together.” According to the UNOCHR, the definition of ‘crimes against humanity’ is codified in article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
“The notion encompasses crimes such as murder, extermination, rape, persecution and all other inhumane acts of a similar character (willfully causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health), committed ‘as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack’.”
Here’s the reality: evangelical Christians are seen as ‘agents of the West’. While it was accepted that there was a general freedom to practice religion in Eritrea, in 2002, the government changed that by recognizing only four religious communities: the Orthodox Church of Eritrea, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran-affiliated Evangelical Church of Eritrea.
Nettleton adds, “At that point basically, all of the evangelical activity went underground, and it continues to be there today. Some of those Christians who were arrested and have been in prison now, for more than a decade, are still there.”
From 2002 to 2010, the government has jailed, tortured and killed numerous Eritreans for political and religious reasons, and tortured and killed many of them extra-judicially.
Today, Eritrea ranks 3rd on the 2016 Open Doors World Watch List, a ranking of the 50 worst countries in the world regarding the persecution of Christians. According to the information compiled from Voice of the Martyrs and Open Doors, the best guess is that between 2,000 and 3,000 Christians are in Eritrean prisons. Some are detained in metal shipping containers in scorching temperatures.
Still, the government continues to support its statement issued in May 2003 that “no groups or persons are persecuted in Eritrea for their beliefs or religion.” While concerns over Christian persecution have been raised at various international forums, there has been little change in the attitude and policy of the one-party government.
What can we do?
Tell their stories. Pray. It’s part of why the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church exists. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the IDOP. Since its genesis in 1996, the IDOP has grown substantially and today is observed in more than 100 countries across the world. God uses the prayers of His people to strengthen and deliver suffering believers. Though sorrow may be the present reality of those suffering for Christ, victory is their ultimate reward.
Nettleton leads us in prayer:
“Father, I want to lift up our brothers and sisters in Eritrea. I think of so many of them who are in prison today. Lord, somehow, supernaturally encourage them. Through your Holy Spirit, allow them to know that people are praying for them. I pray for their families. In many cases, they haven’t seen them for the entire time they’ve been in prison. Encourage them. Father, we also want to pray for the persecutors. We want to pray that you will have your messengers in the right place, at the right time, to reach the hearts of people who need you in Eritrea. We ask all of this, in the name of Jesus, Amen.”