5/8/15 Washington, DC (International Christian Concern) - Although she no longer lives in a cell, "Alice" is still not free. She spent more than six years locked in a cage in an Eritrean prison for her faith in Christ under one of the most repressive regimes against Christians on the globe. She was finally released in February 2015, but her voice has been silenced, her mind has been traumatized, and she is left trapped in her own home under the ever present eyes of the government that jailed her.
"She can't do anything. People can visit her and she has to say, 'I'm good.' That's all," said "Jane," an Eritrean friend of Alice who now lives in the U.S. She continued, "When she came out, she said everything was wonderful and good because she's being controlled. Now she can't say anything."
This is Alice's story: one of hopes and dreams seemingly dashed, but redeemed through her faithful ministry, facing some of the most difficult kinds of persecution.
The "North Korea" of Africa
Eritrea is one of the most trying places in the world to be a Christian. The country became an independent nation in 1993, breaking away from Ethiopia with overwhelming majority support from the population, but its government has always feared that Ethiopia aims to reconquer the land. The result is that authorities repress, jail, and torture anyone they consider to be a threat to the state, which includes Christians who don't attend registered Orthodox, Lutheran, or Catholic churches.
The United Nations Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has designated Eritrea a "Country of Particular Concern (CPC)." USCIRF defines these countries as ones "where particularly severe violations of religious freedom are tolerated or perpetrated," and where violations are "systematic, egregious, and ongoing."
"Released religious prisoners have reported to USCIRF and other human rights monitors that they were confined in crowded conditions, such as in 20-foot metal shipping containers or underground barracks, and subjected to extreme temperature fluctuations. Evangelicals and Pentecostals released from prison report being pressured to recant their faith in order to be freed. Persons detained for religious activities, in both short-term and long-term detentions, are not formally charged, permitted access to legal counsel, accorded due process, or allowed family visits. Prisoners are not permitted to pray aloud, sing, or preach, and religious books are banned," said the USCIRF 2015 Annual Report regarding Eritrea.
The report estimates that between 1,200 and 3,000 people in Eritrea are currently in jail for their faith, the majority of which are Evangelical Christians. Because of these abuses, Eritrea has been commonly called the "North Korea of Africa." Alice was one of those prisoners.
Alice deeply yearned to bring the Good News to the people of her home country. Born in Eritrea, she emigrated to the U.S. in the early '90s when she was a child and lived in the United States for almost 20 years. However, she felt God calling her to return home in 2008.
"Her heart was burned to serve people... how they were hungry. Then, she started to teach Bible studies, and these sorts of things," Jane said.
When Alice attempted to leave Eritrea in 2009 to renew her passport, authorities arrested her at the airport. Everything was taken from her and she was thrown in jail. It was as if she had just disappeared. There were no charges filed, no lawyers, no trial, just an indefinite prison sentence that began on January 24, 2009.
Alice's family did not know her whereabouts for an entire year. Even after hearing of her imprisonment, her specific location was kept secret for five years. Her mother drowned in tears, wondering each day if her youngest daughter was even still alive.
"It was hell. Her heart broke, but she could not say a word because everything is [watched], so they had to be careful about what they said," Jane shared.
While the Eritrean government attempted to snuff out Alice's preaching of the Good News, God had bigger plans to flourish her ministry while she was in prison. The details of Alice's specific trials remain a mystery, but the Lord who knows her suffering used it for the salvation of sinners.
"A lot of other prisoners before her, when they come out, they told us that some Muslims were converting to Christians... Their life is a witness, so we saw the fruit from someone when they came out," Jane said.
Jane said Muslim inmates turned to Christ in their darkest hour, when they faced the most brutal abuse. Alice's faithful preaching of the Gospel gave them hope.
"God gave her favor inside to tell in boldness, and then convert people. When people got beaten there was a lot of wounding, but no treatment. Nothing! So you need something, you are in desperate [circumstances]," Jane said. "She is another Paul, or Silas... God had a reason to use her for so many people."
Like Joseph who was imprisoned unjustly in Egypt, God used Alice's sentence for good.
"As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today." Genesis 50:20 (ESV)
Alice Freed from Jail
Alice was released from an Eritrean government prison in February of 2015 and Jane was one of the first friends she wanted to tell.
"I was in here when they called right away. When she just came out, she told them, 'Can you tell her. She has to know.' And then, a lot of people, when they heard that and then they called me to tell me about her situation. I was so happy!" Jane said.
However, Jane also said that she must still endure trials ahead. Alice is under strict government watch, has to censor what she says, and is not permitted to work. Alice hopes to return to the U.S., but has no foreseeable way out of Eritrea while under government surveillance.
International Christian Concern urges readers to pray for Alice and thousands of other Christians who are facing unspeakable torture in jail for their faith. These brothers and sisters plead like Paul for the Church to "remember my chains."