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

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

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.

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.

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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11 COMMENTS
  • wedi nakfa December 29, 2015

    Full of trash from so called Christians, basically religion is is making a come back to enslave Africans.

    • Dawit Tesfagergish December 31, 2015

      I know Helen very well. She first was member of Full Gospel then changed to Rhema church. She was very bold and was imprisoned because of her believes. I remember when she got our of prison she was on wheel chair and was not able to walk. I am glad to see her after more than 10 years.

    • Zeray January 5, 2016

      Wedi Nakfa,
      Every sensible Eritrean knows it is not religion that is enslaving Eritreans it is the Eritrean government that is enslaving fellow Eritreans. You can tell it to aliens somewhere but to us since we have seen too much and experienced first hand your words will lack credibility. Stop helping to extend Eritrean sufferings.

  • k.tewolde December 29, 2015

    A people pay 2% of their income to this extortionist brutal regime so that they can renovate their torture chambers,you got to be kidding!KEMTI KARNESHMAY ZIBELO, AYRED!!!!!

  • sara December 30, 2015

    she is brave but her religion followers are the biggest silent majority. hgdf put them under curfew from speaking their mind. They think the regime will be thrown by praying only, God gave them power and brain to think and act….they might deliberately ignore those verses from the bible !!! the face is they are opportunists. They do not organise demonstrations to be a voice for those in prison let alone others but their own church members. Even for their own pastors. I donot know who give them this title. Helen is an outspoken woman for the right of others. She is determinantal, she is strong, she lashed the brutal regime. Those who lives where I live are very opportunists. It is not surprising, in this world we see people converting from one to another religion for so many reasons…..till they get somewhere they depend on others…rather than standing on their own.

  • segidnur December 30, 2015

    Eritreans have become just mourners (meguhayti fitretat), the devil Esayas is having easy time in Eritrea and with no real men & women to challenge or change him he is indeed to stay and rule poor Eritreans for a very long time to come with no sweat. When is a brave (Tunisian man type) come to rescue Eritrea?

  • Berhe Tenesea December 30, 2015

    Although I don’t like The Pente Religion, I feel sory for Helen.The Pente more of a cult than religion. It The Pente leaders brain wash its followers who are mostly innocents and make them money contributors and in worst cases sex slaves.
    Helen come back to your ancestors religion and repent stop being the toy for shrewd and self appointed prophets whose sole purpose is to use people for their own interest.

  • Berhe Tenesea December 30, 2015

    Although I don’t like The Pente Religion, I feel sorry for Helen.The Pente is more of a cult than a religion. The Pente leaders brain wash its followers who are mostly innocents and make them money contributors and in worst cases sex slaves.
    Helen come back to your ancestors religion and repent stop being the toy for shrewd and self appointed prophets whose sole purpose is to use people for their own interest.

  • woldeab December 31, 2015

    ዝኸበርካ ኣቶ በርሀ ትንሳኤ፣ ርእይቶኻ ኣንቢበዮ ኣንቢብካ ገለ ሓበሬታ እንተኾንካ ሪይቶይ ንዓኻን ን ኻልኦት ኣንበብትን ድማ እነሆ
    1 ሃይማኖት ናይ ግሊ ስለዝኾነ ኣብቲ ዝመረጸቶ ሃይማኖት እንተኣመነት እንታይ ኣአተወካ ወይስ
    ሰብ ሃይማኖት ክመርጽ መሰል የብሉን ማለትካ ኢኻ። ተስፋ ይገብር መቸም
    2 ብዛዕባ ጴንጤ ዝበልካዮ ዝንቡዕን ካብ ሓቁ ኣዝዩ ዝረሓቐን ጸለመታት ማንም ሰብ ዝኣምኖ
    ኣይኮነን። እዞም ዝበልካዮም ሰባት ኣሕዋትካን ኣሓትካን ምኻኖም ኣይትረስዕ ትማሊ ትማሊ ውን
    ኣብ ኩነታት ሃገር ምሳና ደው ኢሎም ሃገራዊ ግቡኦም ዝገበሩን ዝገብሩ ዘለዉን ምዃኖም
    ኣይትረስዕ። ምሳይ 5 ይ ዙር ሃገራዊ ኣገልግሎት ዝነበሩ ጀጋኑ ዝተሰውኡ ክጠቕሰልካ
    ይኽእል ኢየ።
    3 ሕዝቢ ኤርትራ ንፍትሒ ዝጣበቕን ንሓቂ ዋጋ ዝኸፍልን ሰብ እዩ ስኢኑ እምበር ከምዚ ከማኻ
    ብምቁንጻብን ብጸርፍን ዘለፋን ንህዝቢ ብወገንን ሃይማኖትን ዝፈላልዩ ኣይተሳእኑን እሞ፡
    ሕጅስ ይእከል።ከምቲ ሓደ ስነጥበበኛ ዝበሎ “ይኣኽለና ይኣኽለና ዝሓለፈ ከይንስእኖ
    ንዝተረፈ”። ቕድሚ ምጽሓፍካ ክልት ግዜ ሕሰብ፡ ጽሑፍካ መምዘኒኻ ምዃኑ ኣይትረስዕ።
    4 እታ ንጽበያ ኤርትራ መሰል ሃይማኖታትን ህዝብን ብማዕረ እተኽብር ክትከውን ደኣ እምበር
    ከምዚ ከማኻ ብጽልኢን ጠቐነን ህዝቢ ዝፈላልዩ እየድልያን እዩ።
    ወደሓንካ

  • Barud January 1, 2016

    I completely agree with you Sara. Their silence (and opportunistic behavior) is ear deafening!
    Some of them say, ‘the imprisoned Pentes’ are there because God wants to teach them a lesson and make them stronger..’ seriously??

  • Habte Michael January 4, 2016

    I think religion is a personal choice, in that regard Helen has a full right to practice the religion of her choice. No one should have any authority to force and agitate against any religion. The main problem with us, the Eritreans is, we’re becoming very confused and very disrespectful to one another due to lack of constitutional system of governance.
    Very unfortunately, the outcome of tyrannical system is very messy and dangerous. The criminals who are ruling Eritrea should feel very happy for fulfilling their dirty games of divide and rule; completely destroying our unity and basic integrity. Let’s just have some hope to survive as a people and come to our senses,respect each other’s religion and political differences.

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