to a hospital in Eritrea's capital Asmara in a serious condition, BosNewsLife learned Saturday, October 14.
"Ms. Berhane, who showed signs of having suffered physical mistreatment, was seen in the hospital on a wheelchair," said Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), a religious rights group supporting her. She has reportedly not been allowed to receive visitors.
31-year-old Helen Berhane is a member of the Rhema Pentecostal Church and was incarcerated soon after releasing an album of gospel music popular among young Eritrean Christians. She is reported to have been held for extensive periods of time in shipping containers and underground cells at the Mai-Serwa military camp.
Investigators say temperatures inside an Eritrea shipping container can increase to 60 decrees Celsius (140 Fahrenheit) and at night to the freezing point. Despite the pressure, the Gospel singer has repeatedly refused to sign a paper to abandon her Christian faith and promising not to participate in church-related activities, Eritrean Christians say.
CSW Advocacy Director Alexa Papadouris told BosNewsLife that his group is "deeply disturbed by news of Helen Berhane’s condition." Papadouris said the singer has been "incarcerated without charge or trial for the last two years and appears to have suffered the most appalling mistreatment."
The CSW official added that the mistreatment was "simply because of her faith, and despite the provisions for freedom of worship contained within the Eritrean Constitution."
Berhane’s reported hospitalization comes at a time of increasing intimidation in Eritrea, CSW said. "Last week, the authorities in the Adi Segdo suburb of Asmara detained 40 members of the Kale Hiwot Church, 10 of whom were children," the group claimed.
"When relatives attempted to visit them carrying food and blankets, they too were arrested. The government recently seized all assets of the Kale Hiwot Church, closing an orphanage and schools for disadvantaged children," CSW said in a statement.
Papadouris said that CSW therefore has urged "the Eritrean Government not only to ensure the physical safety of Helen Berhane [but also] for other prisoners in her position." In addition the group wants a "guarantee that she receives the treatment necessary to ensure her full and swift recovery.”
Eritrea's government has denied human rights abuses saying that no groups or persons are persecuted in the country for their beliefs or religion and that people are free to worship according to their wish.
President Isaias Afworki has been quoted as saying that several religious groups have been "duped by foreigners" who sought to "distract from the unity of the Eritrean people and distort the true meaning of religion." Yet, since 2002 Eritrea's government ordered the closure of all churches not belonging to the Orthodox, Roman Catholic or Evangelical Lutheran denominations.
Human rights groups estimate there are 1,800 Christians, many of them evangelicals, in Eritrea who are held in prisons, military camps and shipping containers. (With BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos, BosNewsLife Research and reports from Eritrea).