Eritrean gospel singer Helen Berhane was tortured for her beliefs. Now she’s speaking up.

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Gospel singer Helen Berhane has found a new life in Europe after fleeing imprisonment in Eritrea, where she was locked in a shipping container and tortured for her religious beliefs. Religion News Service photo by Rosie Scammell

Gospel singer Helen Berhane has found a new life in Europe after fleeing imprisonment in Eritrea, where she was locked in a shipping container and tortured for her religious beliefs. Religion News Service photo by Rosie Scammell

ROME (RNS) Gospel singer Helen Berhane found new life in Europe after fleeing Eritrea, where she was locked in a shipping container and tortured for her religious beliefs.

Berhane, who was released in 2006 after spending 32 months in custody, spoke recently at a Rome conference on Christian persecution in the hopes others might learn of the grievous human rights violations in her native land. The “Under Caesar’s Sword” conference was organized by the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame and the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University. The topic of Christian persecution has been highlighted numerous times by Pope Francis during his papacy.

“The only reason they let you go is when they torture you to death,” she said. “They don’t want you to die in prison, it’s not their responsibility, so they send you home to die.”

Berhane, who was arrested for evangelizing and releasing religious music, was released only after she became deathly ill.

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Her account is corroborated by Amnesty International.

Fisseha M. Tekle, a researcher at the organization’s East Africa office, described prison conditions as “appalling” and said detainees are subjected to torture and deprived of adequate food, water and sanitation.

“Detainees were held in overcrowded underground cells or metal shipping containers, often in desert locations, suffering extremes of heat and cold,” Tekle said.

Berhane was targeted because she was a member of a church banned by the Eritrean regime. The Eritrean government officially sanctions only four religions: the Roman Catholic Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea, the Eritrean Orthodox Church and Sunni Islam.

The leaders of the latter two are appointed directly by the government, according to the U.S. government’s 2014 International Religious Freedom Report.

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Berhane belongs to the Rhema Church, sometimes spelled Rema, a Pentecostal denomination that believes that the miracles in the New Testament continue to happen today and that speaking in tongues is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit.

Before her arrest, Berhane said, she traveled and preached, attracting huge support.

“I remember when I was in Eritrea before the church closed. We had a huge revival, so they arrested the pastor and I,” she said of her church, which had 4,000 members.

In 2004, the government began to crack down, said Tekle.

 “The majority of these pastors remain in arbitrary detention. None have been charged with a crime or brought before a court,” Tekle said.

While jailed, Berhane was pressured to reject her beliefs but refused: “They always ask you to deny your faith and to deny Jesus. I always refused. … I always mentioned that I am not ashamed of the gospel.”

She passed the time praying, reading and singing.

“For me, to sing is like when you go to war; it’s a kind of energy,” she said. “When I’m singing, sometimes I feel something release.”

At winning her freedom, Berhane was unable to walk, had kidney problems and had no access to medicine. Security forces continued to harass her, and she decided to leave for neighboring Sudan, with the help of sympathetic immigration officers, she said.

After Berhane’s daughter, Eva, fled Eritrea and applied for asylum in Denmark, Berhane followed.

They chose Denmark since it allowed them to move within a month. On arrival, Berhane received the medical care she needed.

Berhane said the situation in Eritrea is getting worse and huge numbers of people continue to flee the country. While many are escaping from religious persecution, others are fleeing compulsory military conscription and poverty.

According to the U.N. refugee agency, more than 250,000 Eritreans are currently living in neighboring Ethiopia and Sudan. Many travel farther afield, with Eritreans making up the fourth-largest group to reach Europe by sea this year, after Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis.

Berhane said many young people are arrested in Sudan and sent back to Eritrea, where they are jailed, while others trying to escape are shot at the border by government authorities.

Describing the “terrible” humanitarian situation, Berhane called for a multifaith campaign to help persecuted Eritreans:

“You cannot do anything by yourself. We need many kinds of people. It doesn’t matter what kind of religion they have or which doctrine; we must be united and pray for the voiceless.”

(Rosie Scammell is the Rome correspondent for RNS)

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  • Mike

    So glad you are free Helen. Many like Helen continue to endure hardship under the dictatorship of Issias Afowarki. The leadership in Eritrea continue to oppress the Eritrean people by means of fear. You speak, you end up in jail. There are more jails in Eritrea than school.

  • Henok Berejet

    Really lol Eritrea has a Christian leader this is dumb discrediteds your skills

  • Michael

    Amnesty have convinced me to never give to another charity in my life.
    ever again.

  • Making up beliefs we torture others for not having and allowing ourselves to be tortured for having is evidence of insanity.

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  • Tecle

    Helen’s story is just a drop in the ocean.
    For more info , please check out the latest UNHCR COIE report.

  • James Milner

    This is utter rubbish. What about Guantanamo and many other secret places where Muslims are rotten. The government of Eritrea made it clear that other than the main religions other are not permitted. Western entertainment is not allowed, I wish other countries followed suit to that we would have a better world. You can follow and worship whatever you like, is the so called free countries and you will be slave eternally. Peace be upon you.

  • Paul Fishman

    If Eritrea continues to persecute so many people and put them as dead meat in lockers, the country will lose 65% of its people and will be invaded by Somalia. The leaders of this nation are weak, stupid and politically incompetent. They are simply opening the doors for El Shaabab to come in and set up an Islamic Caliphate. When ALL Christians leave the country from the persecution and uproar, Then this country will have an economic crash along with famine. The Christian population is the source of God’s blessing to that nation. If the leaders of Eritrea continue this evil foolish genocide, then this nation will fall and be no more under El Shaabab.

  • Teddy

    Paul, people like you did not have any idea about the true. In Eritrea there is no religious torture. I understand about Helens situation but, we do not have the bigger pitcher what happen to her sorry I do not beloved her because any one believe in Jesse this is not the way you solve the problem thanks to GOD I am Christian and proud Eritrean American. Just for your information Paul the only country against Terrorist is ERITREA. other country talk about Terrorist but they do nothing.

    Thanks, and God bless

  • Tesfom

    I wish she is alive today. She is now in the hand of God. she been suffering for years. She is truly brave woman. She has a big place in Eritrean history.

  • sidia bdu

    This is brutal regime to any one and every one in Eritrea . The current self appointed leaders are so incompetent and hostile toward their population regardless of their religion unless they conform to their stupidity and to their demands of endless laundry list e.g. Life Time National Service etc. Our ignorant population who is consumed with fear and self love are sucking it up rather than resisting. It is beyond comprehension why parents will keep quiet when their daughter/son are abused in front of their eyes becaus . Yes, the leader is cruel and can put you in jail etc, but they can not jail every one. After a while when it became clear to them that when the public jointly stand up and demand their right, the leader will get the message and will start to arrange for a Visa to flee the country and spend their lives comfortably and spend the money they looted from Eritrea and from Eritreans. The public can not even demand accountability of the 2% tax they collect from the diaspo .

  • Omer zaile

    I think you better study geography to understand what you are talking about. Somalia is as far as Germany to England how on earth somalia to invade eritrea. If you said Ethiopia to invade Eritrea may be because they are expansionist in nature. But Al-Shabab is to far from Eritrea and Eritreans are not worried about invesion, because they know how to defend their country.

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