'They Only Let You Go When They Torture You to Death'
“It was a kind of test. I know in the Bible it says everything is good for us believers, but I asked, in this what is good? That I am [beaten, tortured]?… They asked for my Bible. I said, ‘It is in my mind.’ So they said they must destroy it.” —Helen Berhane, Survivor
She sat in the dark, replaying the story of Abraham and Isaac over and over in her mind. It was the only way, she said later, that she could keep her resolve. Chained up in a shipping container, her body contorted and aching, she did what got her moved from her cell in the first place — Helen sang.
Like a lot of Christians in Eritrea, a small country to the east of Sudan, Helen knew the risks of sharing the gospel. She took them anyway. The government finally tracked her down when she made a CD about Jesus, a decision that would forever alter her life. Her church was raided and closed. She was punished, tortured, and sent to a military prison full of young people vomiting and crying. At one point, she was moved from her hole in the ground cell to the makeshift insane asylum when she openly prayed for her guards. “It was freezing at night,” she remembers, “baking hot in the day with no lights at all inside. The bathroom was a patch of ground outside the container, in full view of the guards. The prisoners were fed on gruel in the dark, most of them horribly sick.
"So I said the only thing we can do now is sing. We worship God because He gave us life. We started singing — ‘Thank you, God, for this cold, this toilet, thank you, God, for everything.’ The guards were shocked… So they opened the container and tortured us with this black metal stick that burned our bodies.” When they discovered that she’d found a way to write down stories about Jesus, they beat her harder.
“My whole body started shaking. They gave me five minutes rest and said, ‘Helen you must stop saying [the name] Jesus.’ ‘I said no. I accept him until death.’ I said, ‘I cannot stop saying Jesus, He is my life.’ My body was red and blue. The guard was the one exhausted. He said, ‘Helen, what do you think?’ I said, ‘You are doing your job, I am doing my Father’s job.’”
When her body was too broken to stand, she was sent to the hospital. “The only reason they let you go is when they torture you to death,” she said later. But Helen didn’t die. She was spared — she knows now — to share her story with the world. At the State Department’s second Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom, she is one of many people with scars. Scars that compel her to stop the hatred from hurting anyone else. “You cannot do anything by yourself,” she says. “We need many kinds of people. It doesn’t matter what kind of religion they have or which doctrine; we must be united and pray for the voiceless.”
It’s that cultural mosaic of faiths, as USAID administrator Mark Green told me, that is crucial to ending the persecution. On Tuesday afternoon’s “Washington Watch,” he pointed out that places like Iraq, which are so important to our religious identity, people should be able to live and work in peace. But, as he said, “It’s hard work… It’s exhausting work. It’s costly work.” But that’s a part of leading. And if the United States wants to have a role protecting and shaping religious liberty, we have to be involved. USAID, which has funneled millions of dollars in aid to the area, is busy “restoring electricity, restoring water so that people have some sense that they’re welcome… that they can begin to rebuild their lives and have a future there.”
“We’ve hit a nerve here,” Ambassador Sam Brownback insisted to the biggest event of this kind in the world. “People want religious freedom and they want it now.” Unfortunately, not every country is as open to the idea as the ones gathered here. In Cuba, five pastors were on their way to the ministerial — only to be stopped by the government at the airport.
Kristina Arriaga, one of my co-commissioners on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), whose own father escaped the regime, warns that a greater crackdown may be coming. “For the first time in 60 years since the Fidel Castro dictatorship started, evangelicals all over the country have been getting together and have been starting to push back on the Cuban government. And that has had serious consequences. The ministerial invited five pastors to come and four of them yesterday, as they were leaving the airport in Havana, were detained for an extended period of time were told they would not be going to ‘Pompeo’s event.’ And if there is any reason to believe that religious freedom exists in Cuba, this is certainly something that negates that immediately.”
“I know all of these pastors,” she explained. “I have spoken to them. They have met with commissioners, and they have cried in our offices about how terrible their situation is in Cuba. And yet they were brave enough to try to come back. And these pastors were defiant! They prayed openly in the airport, in a communist country, and they also wrote statements saying, ‘Please tell the American people — please tell the world — that this is what is happening in Cuba to Christians.”
The irony, of course, is that by harassing these pastors, Cuba is making the ministerial’s point. Religious freedom — whether it’s in an island 90 miles from Florida or the cradle of Christianity — matters. These pastors, like Nadia Murad and Helen Berhane, are bold — but their homelands will not get better unless we accept our calling to help. “The world is on fire in a lot of places,” Mark Green admitted, but we have to believe in the power of faith to lift up the hurting.
Originally published here.
Do We Cry with Them?
It started in March, five years after the massacres. U.N. and Iraqi officials stood solemnly in a circle, looking at the grass where the first mass grave in Sinjar would be exhumed. Underneath were the bodies of Yazidis — kidnapped children, women who’d been shackled as sex slaves, executed husbands and fathers and sons. Looking down at the dirt, officials were quiet, knowing this was just the first of 198 sites where thousands of people, slaughtered in cold blood, lay dead.
Haider Elias came to the U.S. before those ISIS killings. A Yazidi himself, he spent years translating for the U.S. special forces — a job so dangerous, the New Yorker points out, that most of them carried pistols so they could kill themselves instead of being captured. Like Elias, two of his friends immigrated to America, taking jobs in different states. On August 2, 2014, one of the translators got a call that there had been an attack. “ISIS has taken over Sinjar,” he was told. “Everyone is running to the mountain.”
Elias “spent the night calling his family but was unable to reach his youngest brother, Faleh. In the morning, he found out that Faleh had been executed, along with dozens of other men from their village. When Elias closed his eyes, he imagined his brother’s phone ringing the moment the gun was fired.” Early the next morning, “Yazidis across America began to organize.” A half-decade later, Elias is in Washington, D.C., the head of the Yazda organization, dedicated to finding relief for the Yazidis affected by the tragedy at Sinjar.
Tuesday night, at a special FRC event on the future of religious liberty in Northeast Syria, Elias talked about the importance of holding the monsters of ISIS accountable. More than 5,800 people died in that massacre, but at least 3,000 are unaccounted for — girls who endured unimaginable torture and suffering. The ones who didn’t commit suicide after being raped by ISIS fighters are living in worlds that have been destroyed. Now, he says soberly, “the hope of many Yazidi families to find their daughters alive is fading.”
“We kept talking about the Yazidi genocides… in the past … but right now, the genocide is ongoing against the religious minorities. And justice is the first thing. If justice doesn’t happen, what is the alternative for these minorities? If they have any power, retaliation is the alternative. They want to go and kill their Sunni neighbor, because they didn’t see there is any justice or there is anything happening. So a civil war will occur for sure… Anywhere that Yazidis and Christians live, if they don’t see justices… they will try to defend themselves by themselves. Just like what happened in Mount Sinjar in Iraq, when the people left [for] the mountain and tried to defend themselves and kill ISIS.”
Elias, who’s spent hours collecting evidence from survivors, finally persuaded the U.N. and other international leaders to create an investigative team to go to Iraq and look at the mass graves in Sinjar. The same thing, he insists, needs to happen in Syria — making sure perpetrators are held accountable.
And the perpetrators, Sinam Mohamad told our crowded audience, are many. “Look at the north of Syria,” she said. “I’m from Afrin… [Since last March], it has been occupied by Turkey and the mercenaries who are [affiliated] with Turkey.” In 2018, her family was forced to flee after 58 days of shelling by attack planes. What happened to all of the religious minorities who used to coexist? They left.
“[The militants] came by sword and they said, 'We are coming to kill the Kurdish people who are infidels. We are coming to kill the Alawites. We are coming to kill the Yazidis.’ So this is what happened: the Yazidi people emptied their villages and ran away. The Alawites, the same. The Kurdish people, most of them my family, left their houses and went to the other regions for safety… Church people, Christian people, they left. They couldn’t [stay] or they would be threatened.”
What’s going on in Afrin now? “The Turkish and the mercenaries, they are brainwashing the people there. Do you know how? They built the school, and they force the Yazidi people to go to the mosque. And they force the children there to go to the school, and they are teaching them radicalism, extreme Muslim [beliefs]. So maybe after five years, you will have there a new people who are jihadists. Who knows?”
Lord David Alton, who’s had a long and distinguished career as a British member of Parliament, warned that “This lethal evisceration of Christianity and the annihilation of communities which these monuments, churches, and shrines represent isn’t sadly over. Not in Syria, not in Iraq, not in Egypt, and not in African countries like Nigeria, where Isis affiliates have destroyed hundreds of churches and not in communistic atheistic states such as North Korea and China. Witnesses say that the faithful cried as they saw the way of the cross destroyed in Henan Province in China. They said, ‘But do we cry with them? And do we raise our voices as the obliteration of the sacred and enforced loss of memory and heritage occur?’”
Thanks to the Trump administration, America is trying. To watch Tuesday night’s powerful event, check it out in full on FRC’s Facebook page.
Originally published here.
This is a publication of the Family Research Council. Mr. Perkins is president of FRC.