Wednesday, December 30, 2015
Eritrean gospel singer Helen Berhane was tortured for her beliefs. Now she's speaking up. - Religion News Service
ROME (RNS) Gospel singer Helen Berhane found new life in Europe after fleeing Eritrea, where she was locked in a shipping container and tortured for her religious beliefs.
Berhane, who was released in 2006 after spending 32 months in custody, spoke recently at a Rome conference on Christian persecution in the hopes others might learn of the grievous human rights violations in her native land. The “Under Caesar’s Sword” conference was organized by the Center for Civil and Human Rights at the University of Notre Dame and the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University. The topic of Christian persecution has been highlighted numerous times by Pope Francis during his papacy.
“The only reason they let you go is when they torture you to death,” she said. “They don’t want you to die in prison, it’s not their responsibility, so they send you home to die.”
Berhane, who was arrested for evangelizing and releasing religious music, was released only after she became deathly ill.
Her account is corroborated by Amnesty International.
Fisseha M. Tekle, a researcher at the organization’s East Africa office, described prison conditions as “appalling” and said detainees are subjected to torture and deprived of adequate food, water and sanitation.
“Detainees were held in overcrowded underground cells or metal shipping containers, often in desert locations, suffering extremes of heat and cold,” Tekle said.
Berhane was targeted because she was a member of a church banned by the Eritrean regime. The Eritrean government officially sanctions only four religions: the Roman Catholic Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Eritrea, the Eritrean Orthodox Church and Sunni Islam.
The leaders of the latter two are appointed directly by the government, according to the U.S. government’s 2014 International Religious Freedom Report.
Berhane belongs to the Rhema Church, sometimes spelled Rema, a Pentecostal denomination that believes that the miracles in the New Testament continue to happen today and that speaking in tongues is a manifestation of the Holy Spirit.
Before her arrest, Berhane said, she traveled and preached, attracting huge support.
“I remember when I was in Eritrea before the church closed. We had a huge revival, so they arrested the pastor and I,” she said of her church, which had 4,000 members.
In 2004, the government began to crack down, said Tekle.
“The majority of these pastors remain in arbitrary detention. None have been charged with a crime or brought before a court,” Tekle said.
While jailed, Berhane was pressured to reject her beliefs but refused: “They always ask you to deny your faith and to deny Jesus. I always refused. … I always mentioned that I am not ashamed of the gospel.”
She passed the time praying, reading and singing.
“For me, to sing is like when you go to war; it’s a kind of energy,” she said. “When I’m singing, sometimes I feel something release.”
At winning her freedom, Berhane was unable to walk, had kidney problems and had no access to medicine. Security forces continued to harass her, and she decided to leave for neighboring Sudan, with the help of sympathetic immigration officers, she said.
After Berhane’s daughter, Eva, fled Eritrea and applied for asylum in Denmark, Berhane followed.
They chose Denmark since it allowed them to move within a month. On arrival, Berhane received the medical care she needed.
Berhane said the situation in Eritrea is getting worse and huge numbers of people continue to flee the country. While many are escaping from religious persecution, others are fleeing compulsory military conscription and poverty.
According to the U.N. refugee agency, more than 250,000 Eritreans are currently living in neighboring Ethiopia and Sudan. Many travel farther afield, with Eritreans making up the fourth-largest group to reach Europe by sea this year, after Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis.
Berhane said many young people are arrested in Sudan and sent back to Eritrea, where they are jailed, while others trying to escape are shot at the border by government authorities.
Describing the “terrible” humanitarian situation, Berhane called for a multifaith campaign to help persecuted Eritreans:
“You cannot do anything by yourself. We need many kinds of people. It doesn’t matter what kind of religion they have or which doctrine; we must be united and pray for the voiceless.”
(Rosie Scammell is the Rome correspondent for RNS)
Thursday, December 24, 2015
Saturday, December 19, 2015
Are oil interests, not human rights, at the heart of the EU's £145m Eritrean aid? | Vittorio Longhi | Global development | The Guardian
announced a new five-year assistance package to Eritrea worth €200m (£145m).fter months of talks, the European commission last week
Officially, those funds are to support development in the energy sector and improve governance. In fact, it looks like another move to stem the flow of Eritrean asylum seekers to Europe while letting European companies exploit the country’s natural resources.
The grant from the EU development fund, the first from Brussels to Amara since 2009, has the full agreement of the EU’s 28 member states.
In the view of Neven Mimica, the EU commissioner for international cooperation and development, the package will help to tackle the root causes of migrationfrom Eritrea.
This year alone, the number of Eritrean asylum seekers arriving on Europe’s southern shores has exceeded 40,000 , and this is without taking into account those who die crossing the desert or the Mediterranean.
Mimica implies that Eritreans are economic migrants who flee the country because of poverty and unemployment, rather than refugees forced to escape the oppressive regime of Isaias Afwerki. In the European commission’s announcement there is little mention of the human rights crisis in Eritrea, and there is no concrete demand or condition attached to the aid package.
The EU is effectively suggesting that Eritreans don’t need to apply for asylum, disregarding the 500-page report released last June by the UN commission of inquiry on human rights in Eritrea. The report described a state of terror where the government denies basic rights and freedoms, while perpetuating compulsory and open-ended military service, forced labour, arbitrary detention and torture.
UN commissioners are now trying to establish if those violations constitute crimes against humanity. In addition, the UN security council has just extended the arms embargo on Eritrea, due to the country’s alleged support of terrorist groups in the region such as al-Shabaab.
Father Mussie Zerai, an Eritrean priest who campaigns for refugees’ rights across Europe, believes the EU should now ensure full accountability and transparency on how those resources will be used: “European taxpayers’ money should not be wasted or, worse, it could strengthen the regime, contradicting Europe’s founding principles and values,” he said.
Unfortunately, in Eritrea’s development partnership with the EU, a key principle is the “non-imposition of any political and/or economic conditionality”.
If the EU is so keen on keeping refugees away from its borders, how about compensating the regime for the loss of income deriving from trafficking? While they’re at it, they might also want to cover the resulting loss of proceeds from remittances and the extortive diaspora tax on Eritreans abroad.
However, preventing asylum seekers from fleeing is not the only potential benefit to the EU arising from the agreement. According to the statement, the €200m fund will be used in part for the energy sector, allowing more space for private investors.
New research shows that Eritrea’s Red Sea coast has “massive oil and gas reserves”, but the endless conflict with Ethiopia and the isolation of the Afwerki government have left the country’s natural resources largely untouched.
That may well be why, for example, the former UK Conservative leader Michael Howard led a group of British businessmen to seek investment opportunities in Eritrea’s hydrocarbon sector in March 2014. Lord Howard is chairman of Soma Oil and Gas , a company that has been accused of bribing Somali officials to obtain a licence to explore and extract oil offshore.
In February 2015, Eritrean officials attended the Red Sea Oil and Gas summit in Dubai, where they said they were prioritising the petroleum sector as part of the country’s economic development, promising incentives to foreign oil companies.
Even more evident are the interests of Italy in Eritrea. The country is a former Italian colony and currently a major business partner.
Last year, Lapo Pistelli, the vice-minister of foreign affairs, was criticised by human rights groups for shaking hands with Afwerki during a visit to Asmara. He claimed he was going to start new bilateral relations and bring Eritrea back to the international community “as a responsible and indispensable actor to stabilise the region”.
A few months later, Pistelli played a decisive role in involving the Eritrean government in the Khartoum process, an EU-African Union initiative aimed at tackling the trafficking of migrants between the Horn of Africa and Europe.
In June this year, Pistelli became vice-president of Italy’s oil giant ENI, already active in 15 African countries. The decision was opposed by some left-wing MPs, who accused him of a conflict of interest and suggested he might have planned the move while still in political office.
Regardless of the many accusations levelled at the dictatorship, which include violence and abuse by the government, and notwithstanding the fate of thousands of young asylum seekers who continue to flee the country, ENI provides a fairly glowing account of Eritrea.
In its webpage on the country, the company highlights mining and energy as sectors with high potential to attract foreign investment, and states that Eritrea has “some interesting oil reserves, but the exploitation licences have not been released yet”.
If the EU were serious about helping development in Eritrea and addressing the root causes of migration from the country, it would leave corporations’ interests out of the aid package. It would help to solve the border dispute with Ethiopia and make the funding conditional on true democratic reform and the respect of human rights. That would be the Europe of politics, not business.