Helen Berhane was held in a shipping container for practising her faith
Gospel singer Helen Berhane has finally been released from detention in Eritrea. The authorities have been holding her in a steel shipping container in the desert for refusing to give up her religious activities.
They locked her up shortly after Helen released an album of gospel music and ordered her to sign a paper renouncing her faith and promising to take no further part in church activities. She refused to sign.
Helen has spent at least part of her 29 months in detention in an unventilated shipping container in the desert - enduring searing heat by day and freezing cold by night. She is also believed to have been held in an underground cell in a military camp. Other Christians have suffered the same mistreatment.
Helen Berhane's leg was damaged from the beatings she received in detention and she recently had to receive hospital treatment. She is now said to be able to walk again, but only with the aid of a walking-stick.
She is described as in 'good spirits' - despite all she has endured. Dr Berhane Ashmelash, the Director of Release Eritrea, said he was 'extremely relieved to hear that Helen has finally been released from prison.' She is now with her family near the capital Asmara.
Helen's plight - and that of almost 2,000 other Christians held in detention - has been raised by Release International (RI) and other Christian human rights organisations.
RI is supporting Eritrean Christians who had to flee to a refugee camp in neighbouring Ethiopia. They told RI how they were beaten and tortured, sentenced to hard labour, and - like Helen Berhane - were held underground in total darkness for days.
Some refugees were forced to leave their wives and children behind - and fear reprisals will be taken out against them. The alternative would have been to face indefinite detention.
According to agency reports Eritrea has just arrested a further 150 Christians in a large-scale clampdown. Compass Direct reports the detainees include nursing mothers who were forced to leave their infants behind. And in October Compass reported that Eritrea had tortured two Christians to death after arresting them for holding a religious service in a private house.
110,000 people have signed a petition calling on Eritrea to free Christians imprisoned for their faith. The petition was organised by a coalition of Christian groups, including Release International.
Andy Dipper, RI's Chief Executive said: 'It seems that Eritrea is finally waking up to the international concern about the way it is treating its Christians. It must stop treating these believers as political dissidents and respect their human rights. While Helen has been released, scores more Christians have been taken into detention.'
The military regime has now locked away almost 2,000 Christians, mistakenly associating Evangelical Christianity with political dissent. They fear the Christians may be working for foreign interests to undermine Eritrean society. Eritrea has closed Evangelical churches and is keeping known Christians under close surveillance. Many, like Helen, have been ordered to sign a letter recanting their faith.
Until 2002 there was relative religious freedom in the country. But in May that year the Government announced the immediate closure of all churches other than Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Lutheran. Since then, they have arrested hundreds of evangelical Christians for practising what officials are calling 'a new religion', even though the constitution guarantees freedom of religion.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
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