It’s a thought-provoking question. Eritrea is a small nation in the Horn of Africa, with less than 6 million people, blamed for being one of the world’s biggest providers of refugees. The question is: Why are Eritreans fleeing?
It could be due to the struggling economy. It could be because President Isaias Afewerki keeps Eritrea on a permanent war-footing to guard against the potential of Ethiopia trying to re-conquer Eritrea. It could be fear. It could be all of the above.
There are similarities between the reclusive nations, but is it an accurate comparison? Todd Nettleton, spokesman for the Voice of the Martyrs USA, doesn’t think so. However, the point might not be accuracy, but context. “Most people in America have no clue where Eritrea is. They couldn’t find it on a map, and they don’t know anything about it. They do, however, know at least a little bit about North Korea and about how closed it is. So, if you say, ‘It’s like North Korea,’ it gives people a frame of reference to say, ‘Wow! It must really be bad for Christians.’”
The United Nations released data that supports what Nettleton is saying. The UN Human Rights Council claims that Eritrean authorities may have committed crimes against humanity. Neighbors and family members are often persuaded to inform on each other; sexual slavery and enforced labor are commonplace; and “systematic, widespread, and gross human rights violations have been and are being committed in Eritrea under the authority of the Government.”
If that’s what it’s like for the “average” citizen, what is it like for religious minorities? Persecution watchdog groups like the Voice of the Martyrs, Open Doors, and Amnesty International say it’s an untenable situation for Christians. Since they are considered a threat to the state, they are treated like criminals. Add to that a growing sympathy toward Islamic extremism, and things get really rough.
Christians face dreadful conditions in prison: sometimes prison cells are shipping containers in the desert. Christians face physical torture, hard labor, emotional torture, insufficient food, insufficient hygiene, and insufficient medical care. At least 22 Christians have died while being detained under these conditions.
Any time stories like this get published, strong opposition is expressed, often with accusations of inaccuracy and outright lying. Nettleton responds that in his experience, dissent comes from someone connected to the Eritrean government, someone who is obstructing the results from things like the UN fact-finding missions, or someone who is willfully ignoring what’s going on.
“Anything that you hear or read that says. ‘No, Eritrea is a free nation. Christians are free and can do whatever they want,’ that is factually untrue, and really, laughable, when you understand the situation on the ground: Christians, even at weddings, will be rounded up and arrested; Christians [are] literally disappearing–no charges, no trial.”
Nettleton says the People of the Cross in Eritrea haven’t given up hope. “They understand that this is not an easy place to follow Christ, and yet they are willingly following Christ, continuing to minister, continuing to reach out.”
During his last visit to Eritrea, Nettleton met with the remnant Church–some of whom have been arrested and jailed since he was there. Moved by their sacrifice and commitment to the Gospel, he asked, ‘What can we do to help?’ Their first request was, ‘Pray for us.’”
Praise God for those Eritrean Christians who have managed to escape and share their stories with the West! Pray that their stories will inspire Christians to pray for Eritrea. Ask God to further the Gospel in this very young, African nation.