An Eritrean Christian gospel singer who was tortured and imprisoned without charge for two years by her government was recently granted asylum in Denmark.
Helen Berhane, 32, arrived in Denmark on Friday almost a year after she was freed by the Eritrean government in December 2006.
Previously, she was held inside a metal shipping container and beaten in an effort to force her to recant her faith and promise not to participate in church-related activities. Berhane repeatedly refused to denounce her faith and as a result was severely beaten and tortured leaving her legs permanently injured and wheelchair-dependent.
More than 90 percent of Eritreans belong to one of four recognized religions – Orthodox, Catholic and Lutheran Churches and Islam. However, an estimated 2,000 Eritrean are members of unregistered “illegal” evangelical church groups that the Eritrean government has increasingly cracked down upon in recent years.
Berhane is a member of the unregistered Rhema Pentecostal Church and had just released a gospel music recording when she was arrested in the Eritrean capital in May 2004.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide’s chief executive, Mervyn Thomas, who has advocated on her behalf, said he was happy that Berhane had “finally” found refuge after “so many years of suffering.”
“The profile of her case made it impossible for Helen to remain in Eritrea, and in Sudan she faced the constant threat of being sent back,” Thomas said. “She was forced to move house on several occasions as delays in the asylum process left her in an increasingly vulnerable position, yet her courage and faith throughout her ordeal has been deeply inspiring.”
Although Berhane’s legs were badly injured, she was able to escape to Khartoum with her sister in order to escape being killed by the government, which allegedly wanted to cover up her story. Berhane is one of the most high-profile former prisoners from Eritrea. Her daughter Eva joins her in Denmark.
Thousands of Eritreans flee their country each month, according to CSW. The Eritrean government reportedly executes publicly anyone found to be assisting those who escape, including the man who helped Berhane’s daughter. The man’s body reportedly was placed in a sack after execution and placed in front of his parent’s home, according to CSW.
“We are relieved that Helen and Eva are finally safe and would like to thank everyone who has supported them,” said Dr. Berhane Asmelash, director of Release Eritrea.
“We hope that Helen will now have the peace and space to recover her health and rebuild her life.”
CSW’s Thomas added, “We urge the international community to stop watching this situation develop and start intervening to create a brighter future for the people of this overlooked country.”
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in May recommended that Eritrea be re-designated by the State Department as one of the 11 “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) for 2007. The U.S. Department of State for three straight years has designated Eritrea as a CPC – the worst label for religious freedom violators.