July 17, 2019
"It was a kind of test. I know in the Bible it says everything is good for us believers, but I asked, in this what is good? That I am [beaten, tortured]?... They asked for my Bible. I said, 'It is in my mind.' So they said they must destroy it." --Helen Berhane, Survivor
She sat in the dark, replaying the story of Abraham and Isaac over and over in her mind. It was the only way, she said later, that she could keep her resolve. Chained up in a shipping container, her body contorted and aching, she did what got her moved from her cell in the first place -- Helen sang.
Like a lot of Christians in Eritrea, a small country to the east of Sudan, Helen knew the risks of sharing the gospel. She took them anyway. The government finally tracked her down when she made a CD about Jesus, a decision that would forever alter her life. Her church was raided and closed. She was punished, tortured, and sent to a military prison full of young people vomiting and crying. At one point, she was moved from her hole in the ground cell to the makeshift insane asylum when she openly prayed for her guards. "It was freezing at night," she remembers, "baking hot in the day with no lights at all inside. The bathroom was a patch of ground outside the container, in full view of the guards. The prisoners were fed on gruel in the dark, most of them horribly sick.
"So I said the only thing we can do now is sing. We worship God because He gave us life. We started singing -- 'Thank you, God, for this cold, this toilet, thank you, God, for everything.' The guards were shocked... So they opened the container and tortured us with this black metal stick that burned our bodies." When they discovered that she'd found a way to write down stories about Jesus, they beat her harder.
"My whole body started shaking. They gave me five minutes rest and said, 'Helen you must stop saying [the name] Jesus.' 'I said no. I accept him until death.' I said, 'I cannot stop saying Jesus, He is my life.' My body was red and blue. The guard was the one exhausted. He said, 'Helen, what do you think?' I said, 'You are doing your job, I am doing my Father's job.'"
When her body was too broken to stand, she was sent to the hospital. "The only reason they let you go is when they torture you to death," she said later. But Helen didn't die. She was spared -- she knows now -- to share her story with the world. At the State Department's second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, she is one of many people with scars. Scars that compel her to stop the hatred from hurting anyone else. "You cannot do anything by yourself," she says. "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."
It's that cultural mosaic of faiths, as USAID administrator Mark Green told me, that is crucial to ending the persecution. On Tuesday afternoon's "Washington Watch," he pointed out that places like Iraq, which are so important to our religious identity, people should be able to live and work in peace. But, as he said, "It's hard work... It's exhausting work. It's costly work." But that's a part of leading. And if the United States wants to have a role protecting and shaping religious liberty, we have to be involved. USAID, which has funneled millions of dollars in aid to the area, is busy "restoring electricity, restoring water so that people have some sense that they're welcome... that they can begin to rebuild their lives and have a future there."
"We've hit a nerve here," Ambassador Sam Brownback insisted to the biggest event of this kind in the world. "People want religious freedom and they want it now." Unfortunately, not every country is as open to the idea as the ones gathered here. In Cuba, five pastors were on their way to the ministerial -- only to be stopped by the government at the airport.
Kristina Arriaga, one of my co-commissioners on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), whose own father escaped the regime, warns that a greater crackdown may be coming. "For the first time in 60 years since the Fidel Castro dictatorship started, evangelicals all over the country have been getting together and have been starting to push back on the Cuban government. And that has had serious consequences. The ministerial invited five pastors to come and four of them yesterday, as they were leaving the airport in Havana, were detained for an extended period of time were told they would not be going to 'Pompeo's event.' And if there is any reason to believe that religious freedom exists in Cuba, this is certainly something that negates that immediately."
"I know all of these pastors," she explained. "I have spoken to them. They have met with commissioners, and they have cried in our offices about how terrible their situation is in Cuba. And yet they were brave enough to try to come back. And these pastors were defiant! They prayed openly in the airport, in a communist country, and they also wrote statements saying, 'Please tell the American people -- please tell the world -- that this is what is happening in Cuba to Christians."
The irony, of course, is that by harassing these pastors, Cuba is making the ministerial's point. Religious freedom -- whether it's in an island 90 miles from Florida or the cradle of Christianity -- matters. These pastors, like Nadia Murad and Helen Berhane, are bold -- but their homelands will not get better unless we accept our calling to help. "The world is on fire in a lot of places," Mark Green admitted, but we have to believe in the power of faith to lift up the hurting.
Tony Perkins' Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC senior writers.