During the early morning hours of May 23, 2004, two Eritrean pastors were each arrested by Eritrean authorities for their roles in leading churches in “illegal” evangelical Christian denominations. June marks the beginning of the 19th year in prison for the pastors, Haile Nayzgi and Dr. Kiflu Gebremeskel. Christian persecution ministry Voice of the Martyrs Korea is calling on Christians around the world to mark the anniversary by sending each of the pastors a letter in prison this month to let them know that they are not forgotten.
“All of Eritrea’s evangelical churches were closed by government decree on May 15, 2002,” says Voice of the Martyrs Korea Representative Dr. Hyun Sook Foley. “At that time the church groups were given an application form for government registration. The Full Gospel Church filled out the form and returned it to the appropriate offices, but no reply was ever received.”
Numerous governments and human rights groups have documented that jailed Protestants in Eritrea are routinely subjected to physical beatings and severe psychological pressure to deny their religious beliefs. Police and military authorities continue to demand the prisoners return to one of the three “official” Christian denominations recognized by the government. But according to Representative Foley, even the legally recognized denominations–the nation’s historic Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran churches–have come under government disfavor, incurring threats and even jailing by security police officials.
Representative Foley says that Voice of the Martyrs organizations worldwide began urging Christians to write regular letters of encouragement to Haile Nayzgi and Dr. Kiflu Gebremeskel since they were first imprisoned.
Pastor Haile Nayzgi was the leader of Eritrea’s Full Gospel Church, comprised of 120 to 150 house meeting groups which were ordered closed by the government decree on May 15, 2002. Pastor Nayzgi is married and has three children. He was previously an accountant with World Evangelical Alliance. During his incarceration, Haile has been refused personal contact with his family. “Family and friends went to take food and clothing to the prison to Pastor Nayzgi on August 24, 2004, but they were told that he was no longer there,” says Representative Foley. She says he has been moved to various locations since his arrest, but the actual charges against him have not been released.
According to Representative Foley, Pastor Nayzgi’s wife was warned that she might also be arrested, prompting her and the children to flee the country. “After an arduous journey, they reached another country, where they have been safely living for the past several years,” says Representative Foley. “VOM has been supporting them and visiting them regularly.” She says that Voice of the Martyrs received a message from Pastor Nayzgi smuggled out of Eritrea in which he thanked VOM for supporting his family. “It was encouraging for him to know they were well while he remains in prison,” says Representative Foley.
Dr. Kiflu Gebremeskel, a leading figure of Full Gospel Church of Eritrea, was founder and senior pastor of Southwest Full Gospel Church and member of the executive committee to the Full Gospel Church of Eritrea. He was taken away from his home in Asmara Gejeret at 5 a.m. on May 23, 2004. According to Representative Foley, Dr. Gebremeskel was a mathematics lecturer, department and faculty head at the University of Asmara until 1999, when he became a full-time pastor at the Southwest Full Gospel Church. He has a Ph.D. in mathematics from Chicago University. Representative Foley says that his wife and four children have not been able to visit him.
(from file) A photo of Pastor Haile Nayzgi before his arrest in May 2004.
(from file) A photo of Dr. Kiflu Gebremeskel before his arrest in May 2004.
About 2,000 Eritrean Christians are believed to be under arrest because of their religious beliefs, held in police stations, military camps and prisons in 12 known locations across Eritrea. Pastor Nayzgi and Dr. Gebremeskel are two of an estimated 28 pastors being held.
According to board chair Foley, many of Eritrea’s evangelical pastors remain imprisoned without formal charges or trials, locked in shipping containers in the Mai Serwa prison camps. “These metal shipping containers sit in the middle of the desert and become super-heated during the day and frigid during the night,” says Representative Foley. “Although each shipping container is small and can only fit ten to twelve people, twenty to thirty people are sometimes crammed into one container. There is only one bucket in the corner for human waste, and prisoners are only allowed outside twice per day.”
Representative Foley reports that prisoners are regularly tortured.
“Prisoners are tortured so brutally and for such a long time that they are released with permanent disabilities like paralysis,” board chair Foley explains. “Some die from torture wounds; others are casually executed.”
Despite this, the Eritrean church continues to prosper.
“Every Eritrean Christian knows they can be released from prison by signing a document saying they’ll stop evangelizing and attending unregistered churches. However, many Eritrean Christians choose to remain faithful to Christ in prison,” Representative Foley explains. “But these faithful Christians like Pastor Nayzgi and Dr. Gebremeskel have been in prison now for 19 years.”
(From file) Shipping containers in a desert in Eritrea. Prisoners like Pastor Haile Nayzgi and Dr. Kiflu Gebremeskel are often imprisoned in such containers for more than a decade.
Instructions and prison addresses for writing the two pastors, along with other imprisoned Christians around the world, can be found on Voice of the Martyrs Korea’s website at https://vomkorea.com/en/prisoner-profiles/.
Representative Foley says that information from former prisoners indicates that the Eritrean prisoners are able to receive at least some of the letters. “A guard or prison official might even just say something like, ‘Why are you receiving letters from Korea?’, and it lets the pastors know that they are not forgotten around the world. It even gives them an opportunity to testify about the love of Christ and the body of the Christ,” says Representative Foley. “At minimum, it also puts prison guards on notice that they are being watched by Christians around the world.”
Voice of the Martyrs Korea also administers a fund to provide ongoing support to families of Eritrea’s Christian martyrs and prisoners of faith. Churches and individuals interested in making a monthly donation or one-time gift to VOMK’s Eritrea Fund can do so at www.vomkorea.com/en/donation or via electronic transfer to:
Please include the phrase “Eritrea” on the transfer.