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How an Eritrean doctor who now lives in exile in the UK , is trying to bring healing to his suffering people

ICC Note

“Even social event like the gathering of Christian students is banned. So Christians are harassed, persecuted, and tortured.”

By Dan Wooding

October 6, 2007 Eritrea (ANS) — Dr Berhane Asmelash trained and worked as a doctor until he became church director and medical projects coordinator of the Kale Hiwot Church, Eritrea, in 1994. He was the overseer of fourteen churches and various social projects until his Church sent him to the U.K. to pursue theological study in 1999.

However, the trouble-torn situation in the African nation of Eritrea meant he was unable to return and now he now directs Release Eritrea , an advocacy group that campaigns tirelessly for religious freedom in Eritrea where many Christians are imprisoned, some in shipping containers, as well as pursuing post-graduate theological study and ministerial training.

Peter Wooding, news director of UCB UK, recently interviewed Dr. Asmelash at two UNITE events in West Bromwich, UK, that also launched Brother Andrew’s new book, Secret Believers: what happens when Muslims believe in Christ, written with Al Janssen. (Brother Andrew was the main speaker the gathering.)

Peter Wooding first of all asked Dr. Asmelash to give some background on himself.

“My name is Berhane Asmelash and while I was in Eritrea , I was a medical doctor, but I felt God’s calling and I joined the church,” he began. “I led the church for six years and I came to the UK to study theology. But while I was studying theology here, our government closed my church and arrested many of the Christians. So I decided to stay here.

“Now I am campaigning on behalf of Christian brothers and sisters in Eritrea . My organization is called Release Eritrea which primarily is an advocacy organization and our work is mainly split into three parts:

“Firstly, we speak on behalf of persecuted Christians. We have a website (www.release-eritrea.org.uk) where we post news, and we also we write letters to church leaders and MP’s and also to our government in Eritrea .

“Our second job is prayer. We lead prayer conferences and we encourage British Christians to pray for the Eritrean prisoners.

“The third part of our ministry is humanitarian aid. We try to support the prisoners or families of prisoners in Eritrea . We also do support refugees in Ethiopia , Sudan , and in other places of the world.

“So we have three kind of ministries. However, our main focus is the advocacy. We try to let everybody know what’s happening in Eritrea .”

Peter Wooding then asked him to describe the scale of persecution against Christians in his homeland.

“The persecution started first by closing churches, and we thought it would stop there,” said Dr. Asmelash. “However, a few months after the churches were closed, the government security forces started to raid house Bible groups, Bible studies, prayer groups, and Christian weddings.

“That then led to this persecution where Christians are being arrested in their homes, their offices, on the streets, for just being Christians.

“At the moment, in some places, Christians are not allowed to take office jobs in the government such as teaching, or secretarial and managerial positions. Christians are discriminated at all levels of our society. They are not allowed to conduct weddings as there is no recognition of Christians by the government. So now, Christians are getting married in secret places with the pastor, the parents of the bride and groom and maybe one friend each there for the ceremony.

They spend their honeymoon in prison

“However, if the government finds out about this they arrest the bride and groom and take them to prison. We have dozens of brides and brooms who spend their first week of honeymoon in prison.

“Even social event like the gathering of Christian students is banned. So Christians are harassed, persecuted, and tortured.”

When asked if he had personally suffered persecution in Eritrea , he replied, “I became a Christian during the Ethiopian communism administration and when I was first converted it was in a small town and we were only six Christians. We were praying every day of the week and suddenly members started to increase then the government considered us as a threat, so we were subjected to harassment and sometimes imprisonment.

Was in prison for eleven months

“I was in prison for eleven months,” he said. “Still, the prison condition then were better than now. I was tortured, though my torture was milder than some others and we had no visitors, or no legal representation. They kept us in a locked room and there was no communication with our families.

“After eleven months, I was released and was told that I was an ‘anti-revolutionary’, but eventually told me that they thought I had learned my lesson and so they released me.

“While I was in the prison, I was preaching daily to the other prisoners. Every evening, I would clap my hands and the prisoners would gather around me and I would speak the Word of God and many of them committed their lives to Jesus Christ. That was the only comforting part of the situation for me. Whenever I saw someone turn his life to God, I was really encouraged.

Prayers on death row

“Some people, who were about to be executed, came to me and I prayed with them to receive Christ and now I feel happy that at least these people are with the Lord.

“My release was a miracle because nobody was getting released at that time and every day people were getting executed. So I lived in that situation for eleven months.”

Peter Wooding then asked him if he had felt God’s comfort and strength while he was in prison.

Dr. Asmelash replied, “Yes, the most important thing is you know you feel the presence of God constantly with you. I was waking up early each morning — at about four o’clock — for prayer and always I was feeling that Jesus was next to me and He was speaking to me with dreams and visions.

Iron bars melting…

“For example, early in the morning of the day that I was going to be released, I was praying and I saw a vision of the iron bars of the windows melting down like wax. Then I went for breakfast, and I talked to the fellow prisoners, and told them that I was going to be released. They were not Christians and everybody laughed and one of them said, ‘Yes, it’s a good wish. Most prisoners say things like that.’ But mine was not a ‘good wish’ — it was real.

“The same day, while we were eating lunch, a member of the security police came with a letter and he called my name and told me, ‘You’re released.’ So I had all those testimonies of the many who found Christ in prison and I always felt God’s presence while I was in prison.”

Dr. Asmelash then spoke about how he felt to see so many British Christians at the UNITE event showing their solidarity with the Eritrean Christians.

“I really feel encouraged,” he stated. “When you are persecuted, you suffer from isolation and loneliness. You don’t feel that anyone is thinking about you. You feel everyone is minding his or her business. So this is great. We will let our Christian brothers and sisters in Eritrea know about this and they will be comforted to know that so many people are praying for them.

“And also it is an encouragement for me.”

To hear a half hour radio documentary presented by Peter Wooding, who is the youngest son of Dan and Norma Wooding, on the UNITE event, tune into UCB UK on Sunday Oct 7th at 2pm for In Focus on Sky Channel 0125, DAB Radio and at www.ucb.co.uk

Note: I would like to thank Robin Frost for transcribing this interview.