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Troy Augustine, Regional Manager for Africa
International Christian Concern
For three days, "Yohan's" joints throbbed as the muscles in his arms and legs had stretched in directions human limbs are not intended to bend. His stomach was empty, except for the scraps that fell from the table of his captors after they had eaten their fill.
Yohan had been tied up like an animal, imprisoned, tortured, and starved for his faith in Christ in Eritrea. He was forced to eat trash mixed with dirty rain water that collected during the three days when prison guards bound him and left him outside, exposed to torrential rains, burning desert sun, and bitter cold nights.
"They take you outside in the hot sun with nothing to make you suffer and leave you out in the cold at night ... I was praying and God told me, 'Don't be afraid. It will pass. Stand in your faith,'"Yohan told International Christian Concern (ICC).
Yohan had been thrown in jail in 2003 because he was a zealous evangelist. In Eritrea, preaching the gospel is illegal, but that didn't stop Yohan from constantly testifying about Jesus Christ in the military after he was forcibly conscripted at age 18.
Eritrea's Atrocious Human Rights Record
Yohan's story of abuse and survival in Eritrea is not unique. The government rules its country with an iron fist, perpetuating a climate of fear and arbitrarily detaining, imprisoning, torturing, and often executing its opponents. Among the people, the state considers its enemies to be Christians who practice their faith outside of the three legal denominations: Catholic, Lutheran, and Orthodox.
Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1993 and President Isaias Afwerki remains the country's only head-of-state since then. His administration is paranoid that Ethiopia will recapture Eritrea, so the state suppresses any groups which they feel could become a rebel movement.
"They don't allow preaching and they don't allow religious movements," Yohan said. "They are afraid always if people get together in groups ... They know if they gather to make fellowship, they think it will turn into a movement to end their power. They don't allow very large groups of people to gather for any reason," he added.
The United Nations (UN) released a scathing report on June 8, detailing the kinds of abuse that Yohan experienced that exist in Eritrea at a scale the document called "systematic, widespread, and gross." The report suggest that the Eritrean state may be guilty of "crimes against humanity."
"The religious gatherings of non-authorized denominations are prohibited. Religious materials are confiscated. Adherents are arbitrarily arrested, ill-treated or subjected to torture during their detention, and prisoners are coerced to recant their faith. Many religious followers have been killed or have disappeared," the report said.
The study compiled more than 700 testimonies from Eritreans who have similar stories to Yohan. Other prisoners like him testified about, "extreme forms of restraint, beatings or rape ... intended to inflict severe physical and psychological pain."
The United States Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) also designated Eritrea as a "Country of Particular Concern," in its 2015 Annual Report, corroborating the kinds of systematic abuses mentioned in the UN report and in Yohan's story.
The Dreadful Choice Facing Eritrean Christians
In the face of such terror perpetrated by their own government, scores of Eritrean Christians are fleeing the country, headed for Europe or the United States. On June 3, Islamic State (ISIS) militants kidnapped 88 Eritrean Christians in Libya, headed for Tripoli. According to reports, ISIS separated Christians and Muslims and let the Muslims go free.
On June 4, unknown gunmen, suspected to be from the Sudanese Islamist Rashaida tribe, reportedly opened fire on a convoy of between 49 and 70 Eritrean refugees traveling from Wadi Sharifey near Kassala to Shagarab refugee camp, kidnapping 14 Christians. In Sudan, Shagarab refugee camp is commonly known to be a favorite target of Rashaida, who is regularly involved in illegal human trafficking.
This unimaginable choice that Eritrean Christians face highlights the pervasive and understandable terror that permeates the country. The horrifying reality is that many Christians find it more hopeful to risk death by leaving for countries filled with Muslim extremists bent on their extinction, than to remain in their homeland.
"Faced with a seemingly hopeless situation [that] they feel powerless to change, hundreds of thousands of Eritreans are fleeing their country. In desperation, they resort to deadly escape routes through deserts and neighboring war-torn countries and across dangerous seas in search of safety. They risk capture, torture and death at the hands of ruthless human traffickers," the UN report concluded.
Suffering under the fiercest persecution in Eritrea, Yohan decided the same.
Yohan's Perseverance and Escape
In jail, Yohan became acquainted with suffering, just like his Savior was. Yohan pointed to God's grace, which sustained him through the torture and intimidation. He faced regular interrogations where officials tried to coerce him to recant his faith, even at gunpoint. Through all of it, Yohan's faith was strengthened. Like the Apostle Paul, Yohan was confident, and he was ready to die.
"If we believe in Jesus, and we live for Him, we die for Him. We are ready to die in every situation, in every moment. This is the story of our life. It is daily life," he said.
Despite continuous beatings and torture, Yohan refused to deny Christ. "I am nothing, but God is Alpha and Omega. I am not afraid of you because someday you are going to die, so I'm not afraid to die from you," he told his captors.
In 2004, after nearly a year in prison experiencing unspeakable persecution, Yohan made the same decision scores of his fellow Eritrean brothers and sisters are making today. He was determined to escape the country through Sudan. Yohan was provided a military uniform from a friend outside of the prison and disguised himself to escape.
Once he made it outside the gates, he sprinted for the Sudanese border, running for four days. Finally, he reached Sudan where officials interrogated him regarding his identity and then jailed for three days before releasing him. Ironically, Yohan found in Sudan a government that was more sympathetic to him as a refugee than the way his own government had treated him, even though Sudan's president Omar al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court for "crimes against humanity" for perpetrating genocide in Darfur.
From Sudan, Yohan traversed his way through different parts of Africa from Zimbabwe to South Africa, to Egypt, before finally reaching the United States where he lives under asylum. Yohan's story is one that accentuates the grace of God to persevere His people through the worst of suffering in this world.
Through it all, whether they survive like Yohan, or give their lives standing for Christ, Eritrean brothers and sisters have been counted worthy to suffer the way Jesus did. "We believe in Christ. The way of Christ is to suffer," Yohan said.
For interviews, contact Troy Augustine, Regional Manager for Africa: RM-Africa@persecution.org
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