It is within this context that evangelical Christians in particular have become a threat to the national security of the country due to their “allegiance to God before the state” and are being openly persecuted, according to the Annual Report 2011 of the United States Commission on Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in Eritrea.
Still, every day brave Eritrean Christians risk their lives by refusing to surrender their faith.
Ruta* is a business analyst from Eritrea who has now settled in the UK. When she meets someone from her native Eritrea, there is an immediate bond. She knows the ordeal that person went through to come to the UK and what made them want to leave their country in the first place.
With the prospect of a lifetime spent in the army and religious persecution as a “Pente” (slang for Pentecostal Christian), Ruta herself took a risk by fleeing her home via Sudan when she was only 16.
Many refugees, however, are less fortunate and get caught in their attempt to flee. A large number fall into the hands of human traffickers and face imprisonment, torture and sexual assault.
Ruta knows that she has been lucky and enjoys the religious freedom she has now. Yet she admits that “after a while you take it for granted”. It is only when she calls her friends back home who long to go to church that she becomes aware of how privileged she is.
Whereas Christians in the UK can freely attend church services and publicly read their Bible, evangelical Christians in Eritrea are in constant fear of getting caught.
“If you are seen with a Bible, it means you are a ‘Pente’, because the Orthodox and Catholic Christians have their Bibles at home or in church,” says the 24-year-old.
The risk of being identified as an evangelical Christian stops many believers from bringing a Bible to the military service. They must therefore find other sources to nurture their faith.
Yonas, a friend of Ruta’s brother, exchanged letters with his friend while serving in the army. The letters contained their thoughts on Scripture.
“It was their way of having fellowship, not physically but spiritually,” says Ruta.
Yonas’ polite demeanour, however, made the staff suspicious of him being an evangelical Christian. After a letter was found under his mattress, he and his friend were arrested.
A friend of Ruta’s sister, Zula, likewise attracted attention because of her ‘strange’ behaviour – she had refused to drink and dance at a military camp party. When asked about this, she admitted that she was a “Pente” and was immediately taken to prison.
Zula and Yonas were offered the chance to sign a statement, Ruta says, promising to abstain from practising their faith as a condition for release.
Both declined. Whereas Yonas spent two years in prison and returned to the army, Zula remains in custody.
“Until now, five years later, while my sister has been studying and has achieved so many things, Zula is still in prison because she decided to follow Jesus,” Ruta says.
According to USCIRF’s Annual Report 2011, there are between 2,000 and 3,000 people being held hostage by the authorities on religious grounds. Prisoners face horrendous conditions, such as being kept in airless metal containers in the desert heat or herded like animals in underground cells without toilet facilities.
Many contract diseases due to the lack of hygiene, while others die from starvation and hunger. The ones who do survive are tortured on a daily basis.
“It is physical but most of all mental punishment”, Ruta says. “There are so many things they do to the prisoners.”
She explains that prisoners are forced to do “ridiculous things”, like counting the grains of sand in the burning sun in the middle of the desert. The heat and the humiliating work makes some of them “lose it”.
For her there are only two options: “Either you come out stronger or you get crazy.”
Yonas’ experience has strengthened his faith and he told Ruta that the more they punished him, the more he loved God.
Ruta feels anger and helplessness about the fate of Pentes back home, something she is only able to cope with by erasing it from her mind. Talking to her eldest brother, who has been in the army for over 15 years, she is reminded of the injustice taking place in her native home.
However, Ruta resists losing hope and prays for her country. The recent uprisings in Egypt and Libya have raised her hopes for a change in Eritrea.
“May God bring peace to our country,” she says.
“I am certain that after Libya, Eritrea will be the next country where its people will rise up.”
*all names have been changed for security reasons