Paul* is in his 40s. His hair is almost totally grey, and his skin is surprisingly wrinkly for a man his age. He is very skinny. The arms that protrude from the sleeves of his fleece jacket look too frail to hold the big hands that join in conversation to emphasize the different nuances of his narration. His words flow in a steady stream with only short pauses that never seem long enough for proper breaths. Paul has a lot to say. About the despair he felt before he knew Jesus. About being pointed to the Savior by an unbeliever. About the decade of hardship in prison for refusing to give up his faith or the hope his faith brought him.

Paul grew up in a loving family. When he became an adult, he moved away to find a job. He found technical work in a military camp far away.

But Paul suffered from severe depression and neither the job, the income nor the status brought any peace. “I cannot express the distress I experienced. I think the devil wanted to drive me mad. I would have gone crazy if God hadn’t reached out to me.”

One day Paul asked a friend at the camp, an unbeliever, what he could do to get rid of his emotional pain. “There are Christians here. Maybe if you go to them, you could get better.” So, Paul attended one of their fellowships. Seeing the believers so excited about life was amazing.

“When the Pastor shared the Gospel, I wondered, ‘Could there really be hope in Heaven for a man like me? If this is true, I want to know more about this hope!’”

“I walked and lived like I wanted, fulfilling the desires of my (sinful) heart. After I trusted Christ, I became better and better and ‘disengaged’ from my distress. My heart was filled with peace and joy… Ever since I found this way, I have felt so contented. This has hugely impacted my life.”

Just as he was planning to leave the military, he was arrested. “I was jailed with all the other members of our fellowship at the camp for worshipping outside of the four recognized groups. .”

“‘Why? should I be?’ He asked.

IT WOULD BE A DECADE BEFORE PAUL WAS RELEASED

Ten years of insufficient food, insufficient hygiene, insufficient medical care. 10 Years!

Paul and the other Christians in his group were held in two different places, one of them a dungeon. “It was so hot that people couldn’t bear to touch each other. But the space given to each person was too small; we were packed like sardines.”

He was regularly sick but, because of his refusal to give in to their demands, was never given proper medical care.

“We will release you, or help you, if only you agree to sign this form…” they said to try to entice the Christians. The forms never demanded exactly the same things. The Christians felt they could neither agree to stop worshipping with others, nor stop sharing their faith.

Exasperated over the continued refusal, an official once told Paul, “You people are chained all by yourself. You are here willingly, by your own doing. The government cannot do anything for you…”

PAUL WENT FROM STRENGTH TO WEAKNESS TO HOPE

“When we got there in the beginning, our fellowship was amazing. And the prayer too,” Paul explains.  “We had a Bible, which we tore up among ourselves to read. (If the guards discovered the parts though, it made them very angry.)

“But over time, things changed. People just wanted to be alone to think quietly by themselves. I myself once became like that. I think it was because of the length of our stay and frustration with the circumstances.”

“A commander once asked me, ‘Paul, why did you become a Christian? How long have you been in prison? Ten years? …Why waste all these years?’

“’It is all for the sake of my faith,’ I told him.”

But, as time went by, Paul’s strength started to fail him.

“They put me in a place where I could not breathe. I was sick and in pain. It made me wonder: ‘What am I waiting for here?”

When some of his friends signed a recantation form in exchange for their freedom, he wondered if it would really be so bad if he signed it too.

“I thought I would die, and then thought, ‘What if I die? Where would I go? Where is my hope? Is it not in Heaven?’ I realized that my hope was definitely not on earth. And this really revived my soul as I remembered the hope Jesus granted me.

“In Romans it says, ‘the flesh counts for nothing, but the Spirit gives life.’ (Rom 8:5-6) I have seen this in prison. I mean, yes, there is stress and there is physical illness… But what I went through in my mind is a situation for which there is no medication. You cannot deal with this matter physically. You must work it out with God alone, spiritually.

“From that moment on, I decided to never stop thinking about my home in Heaven again, but to keep my mind on spiritual things. It brought me out of that pain.”

Christians continue to worship in secret in Eritrea

SHORTLY AFTERWARDS PAUL WAS RELEASED

“It was so unexpected. God freed me at exactly the right time. I know now that He does not test you beyond your ability.”

Paul is now coming to terms with the cost of his imprisonment. His parents died while he was held, his family moved on and his peers advanced in life. In it all Paul chooses to focus on the spiritual matters of life and knows He can trust God to care for him now as He cared for him in prison (often through the help of OD supporters).

Please pray for me. Thank the Lord for the encouragement I have received. Pray that the Lord will guide me into the future. My soul is entwined with the will of the Lord. Pray that my testimony would bless others.”

Eritrea ranks no.6 in the WORLD WATCH LIST.

*Name changed for security reasons

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