I’m pages into John Allen’s new book The Global War on Christians and my stomach is in knots. Stories of persecution of Christians can become numbing if we aren’t careful. Read this and when you’re done say a prayer for those who are being subjected to this kind of torture. No, say many prayers.
“The Me’eter military camp and prison, located in the Eritrean desert off the coast of the Red Sea, is a compelling place to begin the tale.
The prison’s signature bit of cruelty is the use of crude metal shipping containers to hold inmates, with so many people forced into these 40-by-38-foot spaces, designed to transport commercial cargo, that prisoners typically have no room to lie down and barely enough to sit. The metal exacerbates the desert temperatures, which means bone-chilling cold at night and wilting heat during the day. When the sun is at its peak, temperatures inside the containers are believed to reach 115 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. One former inmate, lucky enough to be released after serving up a coerced confession, described the containers as “giant ovens baking people alive.” Because prisoners are given little water, they sometimes end up drinking their own scant sweat and urine to stay alive.
When not in lockdown, prisoners are forced into pointless exercises such as counting grains of sand in the desert at midday, and scores die of heatstroke and dehydration. There are no toilets inside the containers, just crude buckets overflowing with urine and feces, placing inmates at risk of infection with diseases such as cholera and diphtheria. Prisoners have no contact with their families or friends, no legal representation, and no medical care. Forms of torture at Me’eter (also transliterated as “Meiter” and “Mitire”) include making inmates kneel on a tree trunk and beating the soles of their feet with rubber hoses; hanging prisoners by their arms and exposing them to the sun, sometimes for forty-eight hours or more; and forcing prisoners to walk barefoot over stones and thorns, with beatings for not going fast enough. Survivors say sexual abuse is also common. Me’eter was opened in 2009 by Eritrea’s single-party regime, controlled by the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, and is still going strong, despite the fact its horrors are well documented. Diplomatic cables released in 2011 by WikiLeaks reveal that U.S. officials had interviewed escapees from Eritrea’s concentration camps and passed along reports to the State Department.
Here’s how one female survivor described life at night inside the shipping containers in a 2009 book:
A single candle flickers, its flame barely illuminating the darkness. They never burn for more than two hours after the door is locked; there’s not enough oxygen to keep the flame alive. The air is thick with a dirty metallic tang, the ever-present stench of the bucket in the corner, and the smell of close-pressed, unwashed bodies. Despite the proximity of so many people, it’s freezing cold.
This survivor described being forced to squat on her haunches and lift three different sizes of rocks while moving them from one side of her body to another, over and over again. At one point she was tossed into a container with a female inmate who had been beaten so badly her uterus was actually hanging outside her body. The survivor desperately tried to push the uterus back in, but cries for help went unanswered and the woman died in agonizing pain.” (1-3)
“For all intents and purposes, Me’eter is a concentration camp for Christians. It’s a military complex converted to house religious prisoners, most of whom adhere to a branch of Christianity not authorized by the state. While precise counts are elusive, most estimates say that somewhere between two thousand and three thousand Christians are presently languishing in Eritrean prisons because of their religious beliefs. The testimony quoted above comes from an evangelical gospel singer named Helen Berhane, an Eritrean Christian jailed from 2004 to 2006 after refusing to sign a pledge promising not to engage in religious activities. She was released thanks to a worldwide pressure campaign, but most of her fellow Christians haven’t been so lucky.” (3)
You can read the entire Introduction here. The Global War on Christians is from Image Books. It is a hardcover with 308 pages and sells for $25.00. Buy it and read it on your knees.
JOHN L. ALLEN, JR. is the Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and a Vatican analyst for CNN and National Public Radio. He is the author of The Rise of Benedict XVI and All the Pope’s Men: The Inside Story of How the Vatican Really Thinks. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the Miami Herald, The Nation, and many other publications. His Internet column, “The Word from Rome,” is considered by knowledgeable observers to be the best single source of insights on Vatican affairs in the English language.