Eritrea (MNN) – Thousands of Somalia refugees are on the move after the government in Eritrea decided to close down its only refugee camp.
Appealing to the government, the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, asked authorities to continue to work with them in providing protection and solutions for those seeking help in Eritrea. Concerns arose over not offering solutions for residents, some of whom have been in the camps for almost 20 years. Many of those who abandoned the camps are now in Ethiopia.
The move brought additional scrutiny on the northeastern African nation, already under fire for its ongoing human rights crisis. Religious rights watchdogs have long been making noise about the country’s treatment of its Evangelical Protestant population. Voice of the Martyrs Canada spokesman Greg Musselman says Eritrea’s history is important context for understanding this move.
From pressure to persecution
The Church has been operating in the country since the early 1950s and seeking registration since 2002. Musselman says, “There is this fear that evangelical Christians there they retreated are now siding with the West and the CIA. They’re ‘trying to bring down the government,’ which is very oppressive, led by President Isaias Afwerki.”
Continuing in that school of thought, the government essentially outlawed any religious practice not associated with Roman Catholicism, Eritrean Orthodoxy, Evangelical Lutheran denominations, or Sunni Islam.
“Then what happened as a result of the churches, the evangelical (Protestant) churches being closed down, believers then started to meet in their homes,” Musselman explains. “The government got wise to that, and then went around arresting these Eritrean believers and putting them in prison, shipping containers. Thousands were imprisoned; many tried to escape; some died trying to escape.”
From mindset to movement
While Christians have some freedom in Eritrea, at the same time, the government seems to view Evangelical Protestants with suspicion. Is that same suspicion cast over Somalis? Musselman offers this thought: “Most people from Somalia are Muslim. And then you’ve got groups, you know, that are very Islamic in terms of how they operate. And so there’s that tension there. So you know, closing down the refugee camps is sad. But on the other hand, it doesn’t surprise me because of the kind of government that they have there, again, as I say, very oppressive.”
Asmara has yet to respond to the UNCHR’s appeal on behalf of the refugees. However, the government’s approach is all too familiar to the Christians driven underground. “This is really nothing new in terms of going around and confiscating property,” explains Musselman. “(In) the second largest city in Eritrea, they were going around and taking possessions from these evangelicals. Even pregnant women and children were arrested.”
From despair to prayer
VOM-Canada comes alongside the Persecuted Church, but in cases like Eritrea, talking about what they do in the country can cause more harm than good. “If we draw too much attention to some of the work we’re doing, it could put others in danger, which has led to arrest for believers or people that trying to bring those funds (which) have been confiscated. Those that are Americans, Canadians, or others, going into these countries can be arrested, and usually, kicked out of the country.”
To that end, Musselman encourages believers to pray for Eritrea’s Christians. Many face similar challenges to the Somali refugees. Do they try to stay in Eritrea, or is it simply better to leave?
He concludes with this thought. Hebrews 13:3 says in part, ‘Remember those in prison.’ It’s not a suggestion, and it’s not a passive sentence, he explains. “Remember them in a way that they would be strong, they would continue not to back away in sharing the Gospel, but they’d have wisdom on how to do that. And you (pray) that the Lord would protect them and their families.”
Headline photo courtesy UNHCR.org