She sings without accompaniment distinctly Middle-Eastern melodies. Listen closely and you’ll pick out one word that needs no translation from her native Eritrean: alleluia.
Helen Berhane walks haltingly with help — still recovering from nerve damage suffered from almost three years of daily beatings and confinement in a storage container. Her crime? She refused to quit singing God’s praises.
Eritrea is a desperately poor African nation wedged between Ethiopia and the Red Sea. She was arrested when she refused to stop singing Gospel music and sharing her faith publicly. When she speaks as she did recently at Christian conferences in Ireland, Australia and Germany, she describes unrelenting torture. Friends say she is still suffering mentally and physically from her ordeal.
She sings, then quietly shares that today thousands of Christian prisoners remain in Eritrea — and they need our help in our prayer.
Statistics show that 50 percent to 62.5 percent of Eritreans are Christians — with 36.5 percent to 50 percent Sunni Muslim. However, the government closely regulates religious activity. It recognizes the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church but all other Christian denominations are required to undergo a restrictive registration process. Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Bahá’í Faith, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and numerous other Protestant denominations are not registered and cannot worship freely. Helen is a member of the Rhema Church, a Pentecostal group that has not been recognized and is officially banned.
Helen was arrested in the city of Asmara and held for 32 months.
Recently she spoke to a conference sponsored by Open Doors Australia, an organization helping to raise awareness of the persecuted church. She also visited churches across Australia, speaking to other Christians about her ordeal and how Eritrean officials considered her a criminal “serial evangelizer.” She was frequently imprisoned for brief periods, she says.
“The police would capture me and ask ‘when are you going to stop this?’ They all knew me and I would come in and out of prison. When I would arrive, the other inmates would say ‘Helen’s back! Welcome!’”
But after releasing a recording of her Gospel music, officials took a sterner attitude.
Separated from her young daughter and taken to the notorious Mai Serwa military camp, she was imprisoned for almost two years, spending much of that time in a shipping container “no more than twenty feet long, so we were packed closely together.”
“There were eighteen of us inside,” she recalls. “We were given a bucket as a toilet and allowed out once a day to empty it,” she said. Yet even in the rancid conditions of her imprisonment, Helen sang. She speaks of her desire to praise God despite her circumstances.
“Even though we were in a dark situation, we could not suppress the word of God. We praised God in spite of the fleas, the lice and the heat. We could not be prevented from singing – even in captivity.”
But singing praises to God meant severe punishment for Helen and the other women who joined her in worship. Helen was reluctant to describe in detail the torture that came as a result of her stubbornness in Christ when speaking to the Australian magazine Eternity.
“They would handcuff me and fasten my ankles together too tight so the pain was excruciating. They left us there the whole night – I was in too much pain to sleep. I concentrated on the stars, because if I let myself think of my legs the pain became unbearable.”
Helen and the other prisoners were frequently promised release if they signed a document declaring they would no longer preach, writes Kaley Payne for Eternity:
But Helen refused, instead looking for ways to continue to share her faith in captivity.
It was Helen’s Christian witness that forced the guards to separate her from the other prisoners. She spent four months in solitary confinement. After a severe beating for being discovered writing Bible studies for another prisoner, Helen was taken to the hospital with fears she would never walk again. From there, Helen’s family helped her flee to Sudan. “It was a miracle – I felt the hand of God on my situation. By his grace, I was free.”
Now living in Denmark after being granted asylum, Helen is humble about her experience.
“As I see it, what I’ve gone through isn’t that much at all. You might think that because of all the things I’ve faced, that I am strong. But there are so many others that have walked where I have walked, and there is so much I still have to learn.”