‘Eritrea today is one vast prison,’ said conference organiser Kate Ward of Release, which serves persecuted Christians around the world.
Since 2002, the Eritrean regime has closed all Evangelical and Pentecostal churches and has imprisoned thousands of believers. Many have been held indefinitely. ‘There are at least 173 Christians in prison who have been held, on average, for more than 10 years,’ said Kate Ward.
Release has launched a campaign, Pray 173, to mobilise prayers for their freedom and is sending postcards to the Eritrean Embassy in the UK. ‘We are calling on Eritrea to release its Christian prisoners and allow freedom of worship,’ says Release CEO Paul Robinson.
The conference, entitled Love Never Fails, was held at St Michael’s Church, Chester Square, London on Oct 7. It was to mark the 10th anniversary of Release Women, a ministry of Release International.
Keynote speaker Helen Berhane has been jailed and tortured in Eritrea for her faith. The gospel singer was thrown into a steel shipping container with no toilet or ventilation. Packed like sardines, the prisoners baked by day and survived the freezing desert nights by huddling together to keep warm.
Inspired by the story of Paul and Silas in the Book of Acts, Helen encouraged herself and her fellow prisoners by singing and speaking about Jesus.
To try to stop her, Helen’s guards took her out and beat her with a baton until she was nearly dead. They told her, ‘Helen, we know you are teaching prisoners about Jesus, but now you are teaching the guards, too. You must stop.’
She replied: ‘I am here to preach the gospel – I can’t stop.’ So they tortured her across her entire body. ‘They knew where the nerve endings were. My torturer beat me until he was exhausted. Then he would rest and start again. He pleaded with me, “Helen, you must stop speaking about Jesus.”
Helen told her torturer: ‘I will love you to the end.’ And when her abuser finally gave up trying to break her, she told him: ‘You have done your job. We have both done our job. We are doing OK.’
Helen said, ‘I’m not afraid of those who come to attack us. I pray for them to know Jesus.
‘Eventually, they sent me home because they didn’t want me to die in prison. Now I travel to be a voice for the voiceless.’
Helen Berhane is now in exile in Denmark. She later wrote in her biography, Song of the Nightingale: ‘If I could sing in prison, imagine what you could do for God’s glory with your freedom.’
Through its international network of missions Release International serves persecuted Christians in more than 30 countries around the world, by: supporting pastors and Christian prisoners, and their families; supplying Christian literature and Bibles; and working for justice.