- - Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Think back on your own life: Where were you 20 years ago today? Perhaps you were walking the aisle and starting life together with your spouse? Or maybe you were enlisting in the military — and today you’re debating retirement? Maybe you were welcoming a newborn who is now away in college.

Your memories of that day may not be as distinct as those of two pastors in Africa. It was in the early morning hours of May 23, 2004, that Kiflu Gebremeskel and Haile Nayzgi were arrested at their homes in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea.

Twenty years later, the two men are still in prison. These two pastors are among the more than 350 Christians currently imprisoned in Eritrea, including more than 80 who have been arrested in the first five months of this year.

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Haile and Kiflu never had a trial. In fact, they’ve never even been charged with a crime. They weren’t sentenced to prison; they just disappeared into a prison system that includes torture, dark underground cells and metal shipping containers used as makeshift prisons. These primitive “prisons” often have minimal ventilation and no running water. And there is no appeals process.

How would a prisoner appeal a verdict that doesn’t exist from a trial that never happened?

Twenty years.

Two years ago, I received a bittersweet text message — a picture of Haile’s daughter wearing a graduation gown and proudly holding her university diploma. Pastor Haile was in prison that day. The picture made me think of all the significant moments he and Kiflu have missed in the lives of their wives and children in the past 20 years.

What milestones would you have missed if you had spent the last 20 years in a prison cell?

For me, the list of milestones is long: my sons’ high school and college graduations, both of my sons’ weddings, a 25th anniversary trip with my wife, the birth of my first grandchild, my parents’ 50th and my in-laws’ 55th anniversaries, Christmas dinners, and many birthday celebrations. I would have missed all these things and many more if I had been in prison the past 20 years instead of raising my sons, loving my wife and living my life.

Twenty years in prison for the “crime” of being a pastor is an obscene offense to human rights and human decency. And religious freedom isn’t the only liberty trampled on by the Eritrean government of President Isaias Afwerki. Eritrea is ranked dead last in journalistic freedom as well, according to The World Press Freedom Index. Imagine, journalists in North Korea have more freedom to report the truth than journalists in Eritrea.

The government of Eritrea has turned a deaf ear to the cries of its own people and has also refused to listen to those around the world calling for more religious freedom and for the release of Haile, Kiflu and other imprisoned Christians.

But we will not be silent. We refuse to forget our brothers and sisters in Afwerki’s gulags.

On this terrible anniversary of injustice, will you add your voice to the cry for freedom for Haile Nayzgi, Kiflu Gebremeskel and other Eritrean Christians?

You could send an email on their behalf. Or you could use whatever social media channel you prefer to add your voice to this cry for freedom, using the hashtag #20Years2Long. Feel free to tag President Afwerki (Facebook, X); Eritrea’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Sophia Tesfamariam (Facebook, X); or the Eritrean Embassy in Washington, D.C. (Facebook, X, email), or the embassy in your home country.

It is vitally important that we raise our voices to government authorities, both Eritrea’s and our own. But it is even more important that we lift our imprisoned Eritrean brothers and sisters before another authority — the Eternal One.

In my years of religious freedom work I’ve had opportunities to interview many formerly imprisoned Christians. I’ll never forget one who told me that early in his imprisonment he came to a clear understanding that God would ultimately decide when he got out of prison.

“God is the one who holds the key to my cell,” he told his family.

That is also true for imprisoned Christians in Eritrea. Ultimately, God is the one who holds the keys to the prison cells of Haile Nayzgi and Kiflu Gebremeskel. He also holds the keys to the cells of more than 350 other Christians imprisoned right now in Eritrea.

It is Him, ultimately, that we appeal to: Please, Lord, open those prison doors!

Todd Nettleton is host of The Voice of the Martyrs Radio and the author of “When Faith Is Forbidden: 40 Days on the Frontlines with Persecuted Christians,” published by Moody Publishers.

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