Dear Reading Friends, this is David Telbat with a short story for you, “An Eritrean Christmas.” While we’re celebrating Christmas in our warm homes with loved ones, we are still called to remember prisoners who are locked away, alone, and suffering for their faith in Jesus Christ.
I’ve written this short story to help us acknowledge the reality of Christians suffering in Eritrean prisons today. The circumstances of this short story are true, the conditions are real, though I could barely dig deep enough to express the gravity of their misery—or the true heights of their faith and love for Jesus. May we remember and pray for our brothers and sisters suffering in Eritrea and elsewhere.
An Eritrean Christmas
by D.I. Telbat
Jason Frazier was freezing to death on Christmas Day. At least, he thought it was Christmas. He wasn’t freezing from being caught in a snow blizzard back home in Oregon, but because he was locked in a metal container in Africa. Due to the press of bodies with him in the boxcar, he couldn’t easily shift his shoulder away from the chilled wall, so he was feeling the effects of frostbite.
On other nights in the container, Jason hadn’t been near the wall, but rather somewhere in the middle of the sleeping mass of bodies—some standing, some seated. He’d been cold on those nights, too, but he had no idea those who were nearest the walls were so tormented!
Somehow, he’d survived the night. The boxcar doors were pushed open on rusty hinges to the dawn air. Men cascaded out of the enclosure that had felt like a meat locker all night.
Nearby, two more containers were opened by armed guards. Jason collapsed onto the red, seedless dirt and stared at the prisoners stumbling from the dark interiors. They’d made it through another night of waning hope and permeating despair. As the last person crawled from the nearest container, Jason counted fifty people. The farthest boxcar had fewer occupants since it was for women prisoners. As they emerged, two women carried a limp form. Hypothermia had claimed another young woman in the night.
Rising, Jason rotated his shoulder, working warmth back into it as he trudged across the prison yard. He and the others would have an hour to relieve themselves, receive a small ration of food, and congregate for a few minutes. Then, they would be forced back into the boxcars for the day. Some might refuse to go back into the misery, since the heat of the day in the container was sometimes more brutal than the cold of the night. Those who refused would be beaten and thrown into the container anyway. Jason had never refused, but he’d witnessed others do so, and he didn’t envy their defiance.
Kneeling at a water pump, Jason took a turn drinking from a spout, hydrating himself for the oven-like temperatures ahead. The first day, nearly a week ago, he’d become dehydrated, and his fellow prisoners had to carry him out at the evening hour. He wouldn’t make that mistake again.
Across the yard, two guards in an elevated crow’s nest watched over the nearly 150 prisoners. Jason swayed on his feet as the sun climbed in the sky, warming his chilled limbs. Some of the men around him had endured the harsh conditions for months. Those who lasted witnessed many deaths. He wondered how many of the men would die while he served his own six month sentence in the Eritrean prison camp. After four arrests in the East African country, the government had finally thrown him into prison. All of his arrests were related to having Bible studies and meetings in private homes.
Jason lifted his hands to the sky and stretched. At least from the guard’s perspective, he guessed it appeared that he was just stretching. If he was found to be worshiping God—which he was—he would be beaten. Unauthorized religious expressions weren’t allowed. The catch was, no religious expressions except those of Islam were ever authorized.
Most of the men and women around him were there for the same reason—they’d sought to register a church, or start a new fellowship of Christians. When they’d been found out, they were arrested. Those who’d been arrested multiple times were sent to prison, where they were tortured day and night until they died, recanted their faith, or served their sentence.
In the food line, boiled lentils, now cold, were served. Jason received his serving in his cupped hands. Very few had bowls. He sat on the ground in a circle of men and women and ate from his bare hands. A man lifted his eyes to heaven and prayed in Tigrinya, a tribal language. Another man thanked the God of the Bible in Arabic, and then Jason blessed the food in English. All three languages were official in Eritrea, though Jason only knew English after one year in Africa.
“Let us prepare for the discussion today,” a tall man said across the circle from Jason. His once-white shirt, now soiled and thin, had an old blood stain, probably from when he’d been tortured to recant his faith after his arrest. “The lesson today will be about the letter to the Colossians. Brother Jason?”
Jason nodded and checked to ensure they were indeed out of hearing distance from the nearest guard. Those in the circle were all Christians, but few had read the whole Bible, let alone memorized portions. The men in the circle were Christian leaders in their respective containers, and they waited for Jason, their faces eager for a blessing in the form of recited Scripture.
“And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind . . .” Jason said from memory. He spoke slowly, three verses from the first chapter of Colossians. After he finished, he repeated the same verses, just as slowly. The men and women remembered different sections, different verses, for when they returned to their containers. Through the coming day, they would share the section or verse they’d memorized, and they would all learn them as well as Jason knew them.
“Teach the others,” the tall man instructed them. “Do not hate. Be thankful in all things, even in this. God is watching and knows our hearts. Jesus is coming soon. We have only to endure a little while longer. Remain faithful. Is there any other business?”
Jason raised his hand.
“I didn’t realize how cold the wall was in the night.” Jason touched his shoulder at the memory of the misery. “We should try to take a wall position during the night so the others are spared, then rotate every couple hours amongst those willing to volunteer.”
“It is a good thought.” The tall man nodded with the others. “Showing ourselves selfless will help the others understand the faith we hold in our Lord who suffered for us. Any objections? It will not be easy.”
There were no objections. Again, they prayed in all three languages, then the Christians dispersed. They had a few minutes before they were forced back into the containers. Jason spent his time staring to the east at the risen sun.
He didn’t regret his calling to be an evangelist in Eritrea. Not only was he sharing the gospel and strengthening other believers, the suffering was purifying his character for the day he would enter heaven. So, he was at peace, content. The Spirit of Christ was with him, comforting and strengthening his resolve. Perhaps he would die in one of the containers, since some prisoners weren’t released until they recanted their faith. But dying was okay, since this life was simply a preparation for the next. He would never recant his faith in Jesus his Savior.
As the guards walked onto the dusty yard, the prisoners made their way into the containers. No one liked the containers, but a beating never made it any better. Jason led the way into the second container and placed his back against the south wall, where it would soon be too hot to touch. More Christians took up positions next to him, so that others wouldn’t have to suffer against the elevated heat. Thus, the worst positions in the container were filled first by believers.
The doors slammed and there was weeping from someone in the darkness. Then, the man on Jason’s right lifted his voice and gently sang a humble worship song to the King of Heaven. Jason wept, but the next song brought joy to his heart and a smile to his face. The song was about how the brightness of God’s glory shined in the darkest places. It seemed to be a song with lyrics written especially for such a location.
Next, the lesson on Colossians began. The man on Jason’s left taught from the verses spoken aloud. Each time a verse was quoted, everyone in the container repeated it. Even the non-Christians joined in, for sanity’s sake, though Jason guessed they wouldn’t be non-believers for long. Sentencing and housing common criminals alongside stubborn Christians would simply make more Christians in Eritrea.
The day passed in feverish heat. At the end of the day, the doors opened, and the prisoners helped one another outside and to the water spout. Soon, the evening meal of more lentils would be served. The freezing night was ahead, and Jason anticipated how God would show Himself mighty to the prisoners as they trusted in Him for what He had done for them all.
It was a fine Christmas Day in Eritrea.
The End of An Eritrean Christmas
Prayer Prompt: We have an update from 12/14/16 of a true prisoner for his faith in Turkey, American Pastor Andrew Brunson. Please pray for him and his family. [We have friends over there who know this family personally. These charges are totally false.]
COMING UP: Join us next time for David’s Author Reflection, “Finding Refuge in God during the Holiday Season.” In our following post, Dee will peek from behind the screen with, “Dec 2016 Novel Update for D.I. Telbat.”
Have a blessed Christmas, Friends.