World Watch Monitor reported a month ago how a mother of three, Fikadu Debesay, died in a desert camp where she had been imprisoned together with her husband. Their crime? Belonging to a non-sanctioned church in Eritrea.
Like Debesay, Ruth is in her late 30s, has three children, and although not imprisoned herself, her church-leader husband is. Here, she tells World Watch Monitor about life as a temporarily ‘single’ Christian mother in Africa’s most repressive state. Initially it is difficult for her to talk and speak openly. Words come hesitantly, carefully considered. But then, as she relaxes, she’s almost eager to talk about things kept inside for so long.
“I was born into a Christian family and, when I became a teenager, in 1994, I decided I wanted to take personal responsibility for my faith. Since then, I’ve experienced what it is to worship God both in freedom and now in secret,” she says.
Ruth became a Christian in a church that enjoyed freedom, but eight years later, in 2002, a law was passed in Eritrea prohibiting Christian practice outside Orthodox, Catholic and Evangelical Lutheran denominations – and also Sunni Islam – so members of outlawed churches now meet in secret in private homes.
The year after her church was officially closed, Ruth married her husband, already a church leader. They had three children, but then the government imprisoned him.
Ruth says that, since then, life has become extremely difficult: “I always worry and wonder how he is. I also find it unbearable to see how my three young children miss him. They always cry for baba. They sometimes perform poorly in school because they miss him so much. It is so hard to care for them by myself.”
Raising a child in this climate of state-repression is a challenge, she says: “When a baby is born in Eritrea, the most important papers are the birth and vaccination certificates. But those mean nothing without a baptism certificate from one of the recognised churches”. In other words, children can only be admitted to school if parents are members of one of the state-recognised churches. The same applies to obtaining food coupons and gaining access to other public services, says Ruth. It is the government’s way of identifying members of unregistered religious groups.
‘Pressure from all sides’
The government’s clampdown on religious groups, and especially churches, has also eroded unity among Eritreans. While they fought together for independence from Ethiopia, state control has driven a wedge between different religions and denominations. Pentecostals, for example, sneeringly referred to as Pentes, are seen as agents of Western imperialism and those who hate the motherland.
Ruth says she’s sad about this: “As Eritrean Christians, we love our country and we do not have any political agenda. We are peace-loving and all we want is to worship God in freedom.”
Ruth says Pentecostal Christians face pressure from all sides: “There is not only pressure from the government, but also from society. People isolate us and make outcasts of us. They can’t wait for us to be caught worshipping in secret. In our neighbourhood we constantly face pressure, so we go about our everyday life with caution and fear.”
She says they are treated as second-class citizens. For example, although most Pentecostal Christians in Eritrea have finished national service and have a right to benefit from public services, they are excluded. “Even if you are able to find a job, you have to be so careful because, once they know that you are an independent Christian, they watch you closely for mistakes that would allow them to fire you,” she says.
Ruth says her children are also isolated. “Nowadays people wear religious necklaces and because we do not wear them, they label us as heretics. They intimidate the children in this way,” she says.
And when, at home, she talks to her children about God, she says she continuously has to stress that they can’t say anything to other people. “That is very confusing for them,” Ruth says. “They are too young to understand what is going on and want to sing loudly and talk with friends at school about what they learn at home. One day security officers visited my house and one of my children kept singing Gospel songs. I had to run and cover her mouth with my hand.”
As a mother Ruth says she longs to see her children “grow up and be able to worship God in freedom. I have dreams for them and want them to be safe. And I fear what will happen if I am arrested. How will they cope?”
“But the love of God is stronger,” she says. “We know there is a risk but we cannot stop worshipping and praying because we need Him to overcome our difficulties. The Bible says we are supposed to love our enemies and forgive what they do to us. We are still human beings, who would love to have a better life, but we always pray for forgiveness and ask the Lord to give us what we need in life.”