In a virtually unprecedented move, 35 Eritrean Christians have been released from prison.
It’s welcome news in the often disheartening story of persecution in Eritrea. Greg Musselman of Voice of the Martyrs Canada says it all started almost two decades ago, when the Eritrean government decided that evangelical Christians could no longer meet without registration.
This led to the closing of churches across the country, including a large congregation in the nation’s capital that had 10,000 believing members. Churches attempted to apply for registration, but they were met with rejection.
“When they shut these churches down, believers started to meet in their homes. We even heard of some meeting in cemeteries in the middle of the night so they wouldn’t be spotted,” Musselman says. Meanwhile, even evangelical weddings are crashed so the bride and groom can be arrested.
Why? Musselman says the government calls it political.
“The government would say in Eritrea that they’re political prisoners and that this is not for religious reasons… There’s just a whole lot of deception and misinformation that’s put out by the Eritrean government.”
Part of the problem is that the Eritrean government thinks Christians are spies for the Western World or at least are allied with the United States. They’re also being pressured from outside sources.
“Unfortunately, with the Orthodox church being very strong there, there were some within that religion that were putting pressure on the government because there were people leaving the Orthodox church and going to evangelical churches.”
Since the Orthodox church is not illegal, that pressure carries plenty of weight. All of the combined forces working against the Church has put many families in the path of persecution.
“Thousands of evangelicals were then imprisoned, many were tortured, and some even died when they were not given medical treatment,” Musselman says. “For these 35 Christians that have been released and for their families this is great, but for the hundreds and maybe thousands that are still imprisoned, [pray] that they would also be released.”
But why a change of heart at all? Musselman isn’t sure, but he speculates that it could have to do with Eritrea’s move to rebuild its relationship with Ethiopia. For years, families have been separated by a border thanks to conflict between the two countries. Now?
“We’ve heard even stories where people who had not had contact with family members for many years were finally able to make phone calls and make arrangements to go visit,” Musselman says.
“Regardless of the motivation, it’s a good thing, and we pray that many more followers of Jesus will soon be released from prison and reunited with their families.”
This news shouldn’t just be a reminder that things are rough for Christians in Eritrea. It should be a reminder to pray.
“It’s not just a passive thing,” Musselman says. “It’s the most important thing that we can do.”