- Kaley Payne (eternity.biz)
As we sit in an African restaurant I can’t help but think it a slightly incongruous setting. Sitting opposite is a woman who just three years ago fled severe persecution in Eritrea. While we eat our injera she talks about her experience through an interpreter. Before answering my first question, she asks to pray. And so, our heads bowed in the midst of meal orders, deliveries and menu queries, I get a taste of the extraordinary character and uncompromising faith of Helen Berhane.
Helen Berhane spent some time in Australia in August, travelling with Open Doors Australia, an organization helping to raise awareness of the persecuted church around the world.
She visited churches across the country, speaking to other Christians about her experience in Eritrea. She has also written her autobiography, a powerful account of the persecution she faced as a vocal Christian in a country that ranks eleventh on Open Doors’ World Watch List for the most dangerous places for Christians. Helen can only be called a serial evangelizer.
A member of the banned Rhema Church – a minority evangelical church in Eritrea, Helen was well known to Eritrean authorities and frequently imprisoned for preaching the gospel in the country’s capital, Asmara. “The police would capture me and ask "When are you going to stop this?’” said Helen. “They all knew me and I would come in and out of prison. When I would arrive, the other inmates would say ‘Helen’s back! Welcome!’” But after releasing a recording of her gospel music, Helen faced her toughest trial.
Separated from her young daughter and taken to the notorious Mai Serwa military camp, she was imprisoned for almost two years, spending much of that time in a shipping container masquerading as a prison cell. In her book, Helen describes the cell: “The container was no more than twenty feet long, so we were packed closely together. There were eighteen of us inside. We were given a bucket as a toilet and allowed out once a day to empty it,” she said.
Yet even in the rancid conditions of her imprisonment, Helen sang. She speaks of her desire to praise God despite her circumstances. “Even though we were in a dark situation, we could not suppress the word of God. We praised God in spite of the fleas, the lice and the heat. We could not be prevented from singing – even in captivity.” But singing praises to God meant severe punishment for Helen and the other women who joined her in worship.
Helen is reluctant to describe in detail the torture that came as a result of her stubbornness in Christ. “They would handcuff me and fasten my ankles together too tight so the pain is excruciating. They left us there the whole night – I was in too much pain to sleep. I concentrated on the stars, because if I let myself think of my legs the pain became unbearable.”
Helen and the other prisoners were frequently promised release if they signed a document declaring they would no longer preach. But Helen refused, instead looking for ways to continue to share her faith in captivity. It was Helen’s Christian witness that forced the guards to separate her from the other prisoners. She spent four months in solitary confinement. After a severe beating for being discovered writing Bible studies for another prisoner, Helen was taken to hospital with fears she would never walk again. From there, Helen’s family helped her flee to Sudan.
“It was a miracle – I felt the hand of God on my situation. By his grace, I was free.”
Evan Peet, National Development Manager at Open Doors Australia, said Australian Christians could learn from people like Helen. “For Western society, it’s so easy to view faith as something that ‘works for us’, and that is constantly changing,” he said. “But for Helen, faith is steadfast, the foundation she is built on. People like Helen do anything to live out their faith. Yet here, too many of us don’t go to church when it rains.”
Mr Peet says bringing Helen Berhane, and others like her, to Australia, is mutually beneficial. “We want people to pray, support, give – to be aware of what’s happening to Christians overseas and advocate for them through government. That’s what we can do for them. But they have so much to offer us too.”
Now living in Denmark after being granted asylum, Helen is humble about her experience. “As I see it, what I’ve gone through isn’t that much at all. You might think that because of all the things I’ve faced, that I am strong. But there are so many others that have walked where I have walked, and there is so much I still have to learn,” she said.
‘Song of the Nightingale’ by Helen Berhane with Emma Newrick is published by Authentic. Click here to purchase it from Amazon India