August 6, 2009

Faith on Freedom: A Summer Update

The following originally appeared in a recent Religious Liberty Program e-newsletter. If you would like to receive our weekly e-newsletter, click here and select “Religious Liberty.”


Who was it that said that summer is the slow season? That person has never been on staff at The Institute on Religion and Democracy! Summer has been busy for everyone at IRD, and the Religious Liberty Program is no exception. Here are a few of the highlights from June and July, with more to come next time.

Marching for human rights in Eritrea

Eritreans hold signs (IRD/Faith McDonnell)

In June, I joined hundreds of Eritreans in protesting the human rights violations taking place in Eritrea today. On June 19, 2009 we gathered at Washington, DC’s Dupont Circle and marched to Eritrean Embassy. Courageous protestors demanded democracy and human rights in Eritrea as Embassy officials took photographs from doorways and windows of the Embassy, trying to intimidate the participants. After the Embassy demonstration, the protestors continued on to the U.S. State Department to present their case.

Eritrea is not much in the media, but it is truly a human rights disaster! That’s why IRD continues to be a voice for persecuted Christians and other Eritreans deprived of the most basic of freedoms. I wrote about Eritrea here and offered resources for action here. There are no independent media outlets in Eritrea, and journalists are often subject to arrest. In addition, citizens are forced into indefinite military service, and are often jailed for refusing. Many imprisoned Christians were young military conscripts discovered to be Christians. Christians, journalists, and other prisoners often are kept in unspeakable conditions such as shipping containers in the desert. The use of torture (in addition to the torture of existing in a shipping container) on prisoners is reported to be widespread.

Eritrea embassy official monitors demonstrations (IRD/Faith McDonnell)

Last week Compass Direct News Service reported on the death of another imprisoned Christian in Eritrea. Yemane Kahasay Andom, 43, died Thursday (July 23) at Mitire Military Confinement Center. Church members revealed that he was suffering from a severe case of malaria. Not only did he receive no medical treatment, but prison authorities continued to torture him and to keep him in solitary confinement underground for his refusal to sign a form recanting his faith.

(IRD/Faith McDonnell)

Andom is the third Christian to die this year at Mitire Military Confinement Center, reports Compass Direct. Mogos Hagos Kiflom, 37, and Mehari Gebreneguse Asgedom, 42, both died from torture in January 2009, sources told Compass Direct. Untreated malaria and torture also caused the death of two Eritrean Christians in 2008. Thirty-seven-year-old Azib Simon died in June 2008, just a week after contracting malaria, and Teklesenbet Gebreab Kiflom, 36, died in October at the Wi’a Military Confinement Center after prison commanders refused to give him treatment for malaria.

Compass Direct says nine Christians are known to have died while imprisoned for their faith in Eritrea. In addition to those mentioned, Nigisti Haile, 33, and Magos Solomon Semere, 30, died from torture and other complications in 2007; and two Christians, Immanuel Andegergesh, 23, and Kibrom Firemichel, 30, died from torture and dehydration in Adi-Quala Confinement Center in October 2006.

I plan to provide follow up information on the current situation in Eritrea in the near future, and I hope that you will join us in raising the profile of the almost 3000 Eritrean Christians who are arrested and imprisoned for no reason other than gathering together for a church service, Sunday School, Bible study, or even for a wedding.

Being a voice for the persecuted in China

This July the tenth anniversary of persecution and oppression of Falun Gong by the Chinese Communist government was marked with a rally in front of the U.S. Capitol on July 16, 2009. I joined members of Congress including Chris Smith (R-NJ), Ileana Ros-

Anh ‘Joseph’ Cao, R-LA (

Lehtinen (R-FL), Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD), Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-FL), William Clay (D-MO), Gus Bilirakis (R-FL), and Anh “Joseph” Cao (R-LA), as well as representatives of numerous human rights organizations, to commend the perseverance and courage of Falun Gong practitioners and to pledge continued advocacy for democracy and freedom in China.  Approximately 1,000 Falun Gong members sat in rows on the ground facing the U.S. Capitol and speakers. Volunteers offered cold water to all (it was about 92 degrees that day).

Since China began its crackdown on Falun Gong, more than 100,000 practitioners have been arrested and sent to re-education/labor camps. As many as 3,000 have died from torture and other forms of persecution. Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby said, “By civilized standards, it is incomprehensible that anything so innocuous and peaceable could provoke bloody repression.”

Faith McDonnell (

It was an honor to be asked to speak alongside moral heroes like Geng He, the wife of the courageous Christian human rights attorney, Gao Zhisheng. Gao defended members of Falun Gong, as well as Christians and other victims of human rights abuses by the Chinese. Imprisoned and tortured many times in the past, he was taken away by the police on February 4, 2009 and has not been heard from since. Geng He and her sixteen year old daughter, Geng Ge, and five year old son, Gao Tianyu escaped from China to the United States, via a third country, in March 2009.

Geng He wrote in an open letter to members of the U.S. Congress in April 2009, that “whenever major human rights cases arose in China” Gao “would always look towards the United States.” She said Gao believed that “the United States is the cornerstone of world freedom, human rights and social order; the United States would not tolerate despotic rule and the wanton abuse of the weak and the masses.” The attorney’s wife continued that when she worried about her husband he would console her, saying, “evil cannot win over good, the ones upholding justice will always have help.” Gao knew that if he was persecuted because of his ideals and sense of justice, “the people in the world who believe in justice would stand by him and support him.” “I know that he would still harbor this light and hope in his heart while enduring various torments in prison,” she declared. “When faced with a huge machine of tyranny, this hope may seem small and weak but it is extraordinarily steadfast, because his faith in the United States is at the core of his hope and expectation.”

May we not disappoint Geng He, nor betray Gao Zhisheng’s faith in America. His life depends on it.

Some recent articles…

While these activities (and many more) have been taking place, I have also been writing about the threats from radical Islam in the United States and the lack of awareness on the part of U.S. Christian leaders and government officials. And just this week, I also wrote about the execution of a young wife and mother, Ri Hyon Ok, a 33 year old North Korean Christian.

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