What on Earth is Eritrea?
by Allan Weatherall
Asmara, Eritrea,1996: Well, it wasn’t quite the picture I expected to see in this war-torn east African city. As I looked around I couldn’t help marvelling at just how industrious and resilient these people were given what they had endured, and how they were managing to rebuild their nation with such scarce resources. This place was much more modern than I expected. Shops were filled with consumer goods... What a strange experience it was for me to be actually standing there after all I had been through. Who would really believe my remarkable story if I told them? But this is the truth. This is what actually happened to me... Mysterious things happen all around the world - despite what the sceptics say. Anyone who has spent a long time in Africa will know this. Mystical experiences are part of life there. But in my own home in Melbourne all those years ago, a strange occurrence happened to me - and it sparked a chain of events that eventually led me on this very unusual safari to east Africa. To tell the full story I need to take you back to 1988 when I was spending an otherwise uneventful day at home.
As someone who had been involved in Christian work for years I had heard of many people testify that God "spoke" to them. But it had never really happened to me. Apart from a few strong feelings, general impressions or convictions about things, I couldn’t categorically say, God "spoke" to me. But this time it was a definite word, not audible, but strongly impressed on my mind in a way that I couldn’t ignore. If you’re reading this perhaps you don’t even believe in God, much less in the idea that he speaks to people. And to be honest, this time I was having a hard time believing it myself - particularly since it was a word that I had never heard before. After all, what on earth was "Eritrea"?
I pushed the notion to the back of my mind - along with the idea that I might be going crazy. But there it was again - "Eritrea" - persistently resounding in my head. Finally I said, "OK Lord, if you are speaking to me, what is Eritrea?" Immediately the reply shot into my head - "Ethiopia" Now I was really going crazy! Even though I had never travelled or taken an interest in Africa, I had heard of Ethiopia. So I went to my bookshelf and pulled out the atlas and turn the page to east Africa.
It is hard to describe the feeling I had when I looked down at that page and saw that word running clearly along the coastline of the red sea in north eastern Ethiopia: E R I T R E A. Shivers went up and down my spine. God was speaking to me!
It’s kind of a party joke among church people - and almost every Christian’s nightmare - to hear the booming words come from above "GO TO AFRICA!" But I had read books where things like this had happened to other people... Livingstone for example... and I was inspired by their stories. So if this was God and not just my imagination, what did he want from me? Why was he drawing my attention to this place? Since I surrendered my life to him I had always said that I would go wherever he wanted... Was this the call? I needed more information.
At the time I had a friend who worked for World Vision, so I rang her to see if I could get some background info on that part of the world. She explained to me that the country had been embroiled in a 30 year civil war soon after 1950, when the UN ignored Eritrean calls for independence and federated it with Ethiopia. I also learned of the Ethiopian violations of human rights against Eritrea; the oppressive Soviet-backed communist regime, and the resilient and resourceful spirit of the Eritrean people who fought on in the face of terrible opposition. When I researched further I was even more amazed to find that Eritrea, despite their cruel treatment, had maintained a good human rights record and had treated their prisoners well. They also displayed amazing ingenuity by building hospitals and pharmaceutical factories into underground mountain hideaways. From what I could learn, I concluded that the Eritreans must be "the good guys", although I’m sure in the complex arena of human conflict, things are never really that simple. But I was moved with a new compassion for these people and I couldn’t help identifying with them in their suffering. As I began to pray, I was surprised again by the certain conviction that God himself was taking a strong and active interest in these people - and even had definite plans for their future.
I found myself uncharacteristically moved to pray quite boldly for three specific things: 1. That Eritrea would win their struggle for independence and that their oppressors would be overthrown; 2. That Eritrea would be established as a separate independent nation, and; 3. That the nation would be moved to accept the gospel of Jesus Christ. Occasionally I wondered if I was letting my imagination run away from me, but during the months that followed, I heard of other Christians who had been similarly moved to pray in this way. I also began to hear more about Eritrea on TV news reports. Professor Fred Hollows was busy creating a good name for Australia through the establishment of much needed eye clinics in Eritrea. 60 Minutes also did a report on Eritrea describing it as "the most inhospitable place on earth". And so I, along with my church (and the Eritrean people themselves), was encouraged to continue to pray for the liberation of the country. As we watched the unfolding events on television, we marvelled as we heard of the progress of the EPLF, the overthrowing of the communist regime in Ethiopia, and the eventual liberation of Eritrea in May 1991. We rejoiced with the Eritrean people when finally, in 1993, they were recognised by the United Nations as a separate, independent nation.
Now I was really stirred up to go to Africa. I had no plans of becoming a "missionary" as such. In fact I had some serious misgivings about methods I had seen employed by some organisations. I had always felt the gospel was a vital message for all people, regardless of race or colour, but I felt that taking that message across cultural boundaries required a great deal of wisdom and sensitivity so that western cultural values are not transplanted in the place of spiritual truth. Finally the day came when I said to my wife, "Roslyn, I think I’m supposed to go to Africa". Now, having lived with me for many years, she has learned to receive comments like that with a healthy degree of scepticism. There was nothing more that I could say to convince her - after all, the whole thing seemed pretty sketchy to me as well! A few days later, however, we got some confirmation that was hard to ignore. Unexpectedly we received a letter from a young lady who had been reading an article I had written in a small religious publication, and although the article mentioned nothing of Africa or my desire to go there, she was moved to write to me and report an extraordinary occurrence. She said that whilst reading my article, she had a vision of me in a place "like Somalia", and was compelled to write and tell me. My wife and I were both thrilled and amazed.
Some time went by before the door was finally open for me to travel to Africa. I had been invited unexpectedly to do some itinerant ministry in Uganda by a Ugandan evangelist from the PCU church in Kampala. After a brief visit to Zimbabwe, and then spending most of my time ministering in remote regions of Uganda, I felt it would be unbearable to be so close to Eritrea without going to have a look. Only a couple of hours after I arrived in Asmara I was introduced to a brother from a certain church of Eritrea. I was able to travel with him as he visited many newly planted indigenous churches throughout the country. I was blown away by the many stories of the faith and endurance of Christians under communist oppression, and how their zeal was not extinguished by their suffering. I was also impressed by how the church was thriving and seemed free of dependence to western missionary organisations, and how they were successfully communicating their love and faith in Christ in the language and style of their own culture.
As I sat with these delightful people and exchanged views, I heard reports of many remarkable turning points in the war that eventually led to the Eritrean victory. Many Eritreans will openly confess to you that God must have had a hand in it. They were up against impossible odds. The powerful Soviet-backed Ethiopian forces had superiority both in the air and on the ground. One amazing story is particularly worth mentioning and points to divine deliverance of biblical proportions. I was told that there were approximately 100,000 Ethiopian soldiers in one place surrounding some Eritrean cities that were held by EPLF forces. Whilst the EPLF forces were vastly outnumbered, and could have been captured with relative ease, the Ethiopian forces somehow received a report that they were outnumbered and fled in confusion. Even during my visit the road heading towards Sudan were still littered with Soviet tanks, trucks, and other military hardware which was abandoned in their hasty retreat. Unfortunately for those retreating Ethiopian soldiers who were attempting to make it across the desert to Sudan, the elements proved too much for many of them. 50,000 of them perished in the attempt. The EPLF, greatly encouraged by this victory found new strength, and the rest is history - 30 years of Ethiopian oppression came to an abrupt end.
Many of us in the developed world see Africa as a place of continual strife and conflict. Attempts to help by western aid agencies have been clumsy and have, unfortunately served to cultivate a passive dependence on foreign aid. Recognising this problem, Eritrea has limited the activities of foreign aid agencies and are determined to rebuild their nation without dependence upon foreign powers.
But whilst the years of strife and conflict has been the crucible for refining a strong and resolute Eritrean people, that very self sufficiency and suspicion of outsiders today presents a whole new threat to Eritrea’s internal peace. The challenge for Eritrea is now to find a way to transition from a warfaring nation to a nation of peace - and achieve prosperity and freedom for all of it’s people. Unfortunately the current government seems intent upon making war against it’s own people. Eritrean Christians are currently facing severe persecution and harsh imprisonment from a government that treats them as if they are enemies of the State. Today unless Christians are members of government approved churches - Orthodox, Catholic or Lutheran - they cannot even gather together without the possibility of arrest and imprisonment.
But regardless of the current situation, we should never underestimate the power of God to change the course of nations. If there is anything that Eritrea’s recent history has taught us, it is that it is God who sets up kings and God who removes them. Despite the plans and schemes of men, God has His own plan for the nations and when God’s time for change arrives no man can stand in His way. What God shuts no man can open, and what God opens no man can shut. For those who are seeking to fulfil the Lord’s purposes in Eritrea there are many open doors for ministry that no man can shut.
Please continue to pray for Eritrea and for it’s current leader, President Isaias Afewerki. Pray that He may meet the Lord of lords and change his ways to achieve truly good outcomes for his nation. Please also pray for the encouragement of believers in Eritrea. As we seek the mind of Christ and intercede according to His will, our prayers work mightily to pull down all strongholds which stand in opposition to God’s plans and purposes.
Allan D Weatherall
Friday, November 10, 2006 printer friendly version | 9956 reads
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