Helen Berhane, 32, was imprisoned for extended periods inside a metal shipping container and beaten in an effort to make her recant her faith in Jesus Christ, the singer and other Christians said. Freed in December 2006, she took refuge in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum, before being granted asylum. She said she feared renewed persecution and possible execution by authorities anxious to cover up what had happened to her and other Christians at the Mai Serwa prison camp near the Eritrean capital Asmara.
Berhane uses a wheelchair, apparently because of severe injuries to her legs and feet sustained in prison beatings. Among the tortures she reportedly endured was the "helicopter" position, in which a prisoner is placed face down with arms and legs tied behind the back. Other Christians have confirmed her account of the torture she suffered. Believers are also exposed to extreme heat and cold, and often not allowed to use sanitation facilities, according to several accounts.
Helen Berhane is a member of the unregistered Rema Church and had just released a cassette of Gospel music when she was arrested in the Eritrean capital on May 13, 2004. She was one of about 2,000 Christians, most of them members of illegal evangelical church groups in Eritrea, who have been detained in recent years, according to human rights group Amnesty International and other organizations investigating reports of persecution.
THRILLED WITH NEWS
"We are thrilled that Helen [Berhane] has now finally found refuge for herself and her daughter after so many years of suffering," said Mervyn Thomas the Chief Executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), which had been involved in an international campaign for her release. However, he said, "We cannot forget that 2000 other Christians still languish in Eritrean detention centers simply for holding on to their faith."
"We are relieved that Helen and her daughter Eva are finally safe and would like to thank everyone who has supported them," added Berhane Asmelash, Director of advocacy group Release Eritrea. Eva joined her mother in Khartoum and accompanied her to Copenhagen where the were reportedly greeted by campaigners and well-wishers on Friday, October 19.
Initially Helen Berhane applied to the United Kingdom for asylum and was interviewed by immigration officials at the British High Commission in Khartoum in January 2007, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) reported. Seven months later, with no decision on her case by the UK, Berhane sought help from Denmark which took one month to determine that she was a genuine asylum seeker, the network added. It was not immediately clear what her plans were in Denmark.
‘OFFICIAL’ RELIGIONS RECOGNIZED
Over 90 percent Eritreans belong to one of four recognized religions – Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran Churches and Islam. All other religions and groups, including evangelical churches, were outlawed by a government decree passed in May 2001. Jehovah’s Witnesses had already been denied their rights as Eritrean citizens as early as 1994, news reports said.
However there have been reports that even the ‘recognized’ churches are facing persecution. This year Abune Dioskoros was named fourth patriarch of the influential Eritrean Orthodox Church, replacing former head Abune Antonios. Church sources said he was selected as the denomination’s new leader this week in the presence of government officials and other "reluctant" bishops who "took no part in the decision".
Despite the apparently mounting evidence to the contrary, Eritrea’s government has denied human rights abuses saying that no groups or persons are persecuted in the country for their beliefs or religion. President Isaias Afworki has aso been quoted as saying that several religious groups have been "duped by foreigners" who sought to "distract from the unity of the Eritrean people and distort the true meaning of religion," an apparent reference to evangelicals.