Ethiopia: Benji

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Benji endured over three years in Eritrean jails, beaten and tortured to deny his Christian faith. He recently escaped, walking hundreds of kilometers to relative safety in Ethiopia.

Benji told us of being locked in a suffocatingly hot metal shipping container in the middle of the desert with only two slices of bread and a cup of tea a day. Many fellow prisoners died.

He related one particularly evil session of mental torture when guards had 18 prisoners dig their own grave. One by one, they were brought out in front of the freshly dug graves. Each was told to deny Christ. The guards shot over each prisoner’s head, removed him to yet another prison, and then filled in the next empty grave, repeating the sadistic process for every prisoner.  Each prisoner saw the filled graves and assumed the previous person had been killed. Threatened with death, each prisoner faced what he thought was an opportunity to save himself by denying Jesus. Of the 18 men brought out that day, only 1 did as the guards commanded.

Right now according to Open Doors, in Eritrea, more than 2,800 Christian men and women remain imprisoned for their faith. All evangelical churches have been closed by police.

UPDATE: We just found out Benji is suffering from Typhus and Malaria as well as severe malnutrition. To directly support Benji, you can give here: www.swi.org

UPDATE 2: Received an email in the middle of the night saying that Benji was beaten and robbed of the money, cell phone and malaria meds we gave him. Even worse, his refugee ID card was stolen. If you are the praying type, please pray. He is in a very desperate situation.

Video of his story will be shown soon on this blog.

(Canon 5D2, 24-105mm @75mm, 1/200 sec, f4.5, ISO400)

Photo ©Copyright Gary S. Chapman 2010

13 thoughts

  1. “Benji was beaten and robbed of the money”, well it serves him right for making up stories and lies in the first place. I have no sympathy for liars.

    Why don’t you ask him, why the other Christians (Catholics, Orthodox, seventh day adventist, Evangelist Lutherans, Jesuists etc) have no problem worshipping their god in Eritrea ?

    I suggest you go visit the country, before you spread utter nonsense told to you by opportunists scoundrels.

    Here is a clip of yet to be showed PBS documentary. Does the reality look anything like you described ?

  2. Well Simon…you have a point. I can see how it could appear that way, especially after having watched the video link you sent. As a journalist, my responsibility is examine all angles of a particular issue. The man that went along with me to help Benji lived in Eritrea for years, serving the people there until he was forced to leave by the present government. The facts of the story have been verified as best we can from friends and other organizations that work in the area. His was a story we couldn’t ignore. Our intent is to tell what we have encountered even if it is different from what another media group reported. Thanks for taking the time to respond.

  3. As if everything we see on PBS is absolute, unbiased truth. And we’re 100% certain PBS would *never* fall prey to (or willingly disseminate) Eritrean government propaganda.

  4. @Rich
    If you don’t trust PBS, can I challenge you to go visit the country and get an independent perspective.

    At the risk of offending some of you, let me try to explain what is going on.
    Eritrea has never been and will never be against Christians. Infact, you will find it is the second country to receive Christianity after Armenia in the 4th Century, way before Europe and the rest of the world. Islam was introduced in the 7th century. For centuries equilibrium was reached and in the main people lived side by side peacefully.
    Evangelism is nothing new to Eritrea and there is no resistance to it as long as it respected the other religions. Lutheran Evangelism was introduced by the Scandinavians around 1890 and American Evangelism in the 1950.

    After independence in 1993, every man and his dog came to preach their religion in a newly open country. With them some undesirable ones who do not recognize earthly government and other religions try to exploit situations. Namely the Saudi funded vile Whabis who desire to overthrow any government that does not work towards Caliphate and the Jehovah’s witnesses who refuse to recognize the government and refused to participate in the Referendum.
    The wahabi threat was getting serious when Binladen was funding them hiding in the Sudan. To contain all this problem, the government asked all religious related funding to be declared beforehand and all the religions to register themselves with the government before they continue with their business.

    Most of them complied with the registration process and were given permission. The wahabis were banned for obvious reasons, so did the Jehovah’s witness for refusing to recognize the government and refusing to do their obligations as citizens. The American Evangelists rather than recognizing reality on the ground, they refused to register on the grounds of religious freedom. The government pleaded with them to follow the procedure, but they chose to escalate the matter and chose the confrontational route. They went ahead and lobbied the Bush government and put Eritrea with the likes of N.Korea and Saudi Arabia for religious persecution. The government attitude hardened, and told them they can not continue unless they complied. They further escalated the situation, by distributing bibles in secular army barracks etc. and further politicizing the situation.

    So lets get things in perspective. People like Benji will avoid or run away from conscription and tell people they are religiously persecuted. In reality the government is trying its best to get the balance right.
    It is no rocket science, in the name of religious freedom, evil things can not be allowed to thrive. We have seen that happening in a lot places lately, I am grateful it is not in Eritrea.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jul/27/boko-haram-nigeria-attacks
    http://www.defenselink.mil/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=42407

    Any one who doubts things is very welcome to go visit for themselves.
    http://www.asmera.nl/asmara-churches.htm

  5. I am sure there are men that avoid conscription by running away. But we should also consider the numerous reports of men and women that have been thrown in prison and tortured for choosing to follow their faith as they desire:

    “In the November sweep, authorities arrested 65 members of the Kale-Hiwot Church in the towns of Barentu and Dekemhare, including 17 women. In Keren and Mendefera, 25 members of the Full Gospel Church were arrested, and 20 Christians belonging to the Church of the Living God in Mendefera and Adi-Kuala were arrested. Church leaders in Eritrea told Open Doors that by mid-December, a total of 2,891 Christians, including 101 women, had been incarcerated for their faith. On June 8, 2008 Compass learned that eight Christians held at the Adi-Quala prison were taken to medical emergency facilities as a result of torture by military personnel at the camp. Eritrean officials have routinely denied religious oppression exists in the country, saying the government is only enforcing laws against unregistered churches.”
    via http://www.compassdirect.org

    These reports are also validated by the bbc: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/3663654.stm Here is a comment by one eye witness Eritrean reader:

    “I was doing my national service in Sawa Military training during the period 1999- 2001. During the two years period of my stay in Sawa, I witnessed an enormous amount of beating and torture to individuals who happened to be followers of Jehovah’s Witness and Pentecostal (commonly known as “Pente”) religions. I was, on many occasions, a prison guard to these people. The Jehovas are detained for refusing, according to their faith, to take the military training. But the “Pentes” are usually simply detained for reading bibles, praying in a group, singing gospels etc during the free time, even though they are good soldiers. Once they are detained their head is shaven, like the other criminals in the prison. 20-30 of them are detained in a 3×4 metal-house. They were allowed to go out only for 30 minutes in whole day. The perfect relaxation time for the detainees were when they were taken to load and unloads cement, food etc from trucks. They all prefer this work than to be locked in the container even though it is physically exhausting for them. But the worst time for all of them was during ‘questioning’ time. They were badly beaten to the extent that noses are broken, feet bleed. After the beating comes the notorious ‘helicopter’ torture in which your two legs are tied with your hands on your back. You are thrown in the sun and milk is poured on your body to attract the flies. It was the most inhuman treatment I have ever witnessed
    Amanuel, Cape Town, South Africa”

    Whether we agree with these believers or not, this side of the story also needs a voice. Thanks again Simon for taking the time to respond.

  6. I have personally lived in Eritrea and worked there for five and a half years. I am wondering how much time Simon has spent in Eritrea? I hired Benji as a day worker and it was my son who led him to Christ. He lived with us, ate with us and is like our son. I have personally been with Christians in the military camps and have seen first hand what they suffer for reading Bibles, singing Christian songs and following Jesus. This is not second hand but what I have personally seen. They, including my staff, have been systematically detained and all rights have been stripped from them. The police in Asmera have been disbanded as well as the press and find it amazing that Simon, most likely an Eritrean who is pro-government ( won’t reveal that however) is ignorant or worse complicit with those who have beaten and tortured my friends and brothers and sisters. Bibles are illegal in the prisons and the have staged mock executions to get the Eritreans to deny their faith. I have gone to underground meetings and even had them in my own home. Simply meeting to discuss Christ or read His word together is a crime in Eritrea. In fact 13 months of prison is the second sentence for being a follower of Christ. Simon, stand up for those who suffer and look at all the facts, not some hand picked reports that have been allowed and censored by the government. The whole world knows what that government is doing to the people and Benji is just one of the stories. Been there, lived there, witnessed it. Reveal you self and stop hiding and lets see what you are really about. I have zero patience for a man who would attack those who have already suffered. I could go on and on but you asked if we had been there or seen it and I am wondering if 5 1/2 years qualifies?

  7. @Simon

    Benji’s story is not unique. There have been numerous stories of Christian persecution coming out of the country and the Eritrean government has a habit of using the Internet to smear and libel anyone who comes forward with such reports.

    For you to imply that Benji deserved to be robbed and beaten simply for telling his side of the story really tells me all I need to know about yourself.

    And that PBS puff piece tells me absolutely nothing. The majority of American media outlets have lost much of their credibility over recent years, particularly during the last American election cycle.

    So what is the truth? Is Eritrea truly a utopia offering religious freedom for all its citizens and fallen victim to a massive conspiracy by evangelical Christians? Or could it be that there are truth to these reports and the government is engaging in a propaganda campaign through the media, the Internet, and proxies to subvert these reports?

    Common sense points to the latter.

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