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Woman relives terror of Christian schoolchildren being rounded up by police in Eritrea


3 September 2019

A young Christian woman has told Barnabas Fund of the “harsh reality of oppression” towards Christians in Eritrea and how, as a child, she and her Bible-club classmates, some as young as five, were seized from a church by police, put in the back of a truck and driven off.

Sophia, now a university student in Australia, describes herself as “a witness to the constant threat that Christian believers face in Eritrea”. She described for us, in vivid detail, how some believers are denied the basic right to worship freely in the north-east African nation and can be seized by police at any moment.

Eritrean Christian children playing in a refugee camp school supported by Barnabas
Eritrean Christian children playing in a refugee camp nursery school supported by Barnabas

As an eight-year-old, in 2004, Sophia was attending a weekly Saturday Bible class in the capital, Asmara, when uniformed police arrived in a pick-up truck. Sophia had heard that Christians had been imprisoned in Eritrea for their beliefs, but until that moment had never felt in danger.

“My teacher stayed amazingly calm and continued teaching,” she recalled. “But it was not long before two of the officers approached us and ordered us to get into the truck.”

The truck was overloaded with children, some as young as five, many sobbing and crying, who were taken to a police station where they were ordered to sit on the floor in a big hall. An older child in Sophia’s group told them to start praying, which they did. Other children started to sing:

“Exile or death,
Stress or hardship may come but I am not afraid.
Who can separate me from Jesus,
Who showed me His love on the cross.”

Sophia joined in the singing. “For a moment, there was hope and I felt like a hero, partaking the suffering for the sake of the One I believe in,” she said.

“Suddenly, one officer stormed in and started kicking and slapping every kid in front,” said Sophia. “The room went silent. He rebuked us and reminded us that we are at a police station and not in church.”

The children remained in the hall in silence for hours until police returned and took their details and addresses. The police released all those aged under 12, including Sophia. The older children were kept in detention.

“That was the last day I went to church in my country,” recalled Sophia. “The remaining years, we lived in a constant fear with my family as many arrests continued from the church including the main leaders who are in prison until today. The images from the day remain vividly in my mind, reminding me that I was lucky to be free and there are many Eritreans who are still suffering in jail for the same reason.”

She said, “Going to a church is one of the basic rights in many countries, but so many Eritreans yearn for the day to come that they gather to worship freely. Here in Australia, I go to my local church and serve as a Sunday school teacher in the church. I pray to see the day that I will visit my country one day and visit the church I grew up in. Glory be to God.”

In Eritrea, since religious registration policies were introduced in 2002, only three Christian denominations are legally permitted – Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Lutheran – as well as Sunni Islam. In June 2019, the latest victims of an ongoing government crackdown on Christians in Eritrea were women, some pregnant, and children who were arrested by security forces in a raid on a church in the city of Keren.

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