Eritrean Patriarch Abune Antonios dies after 16 years in D…… | News and reports
Abune Antonios, a confined patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church and the longest serving prisoner of conscience in the Horn of Africa, died on February 9 at the age of 94.
He remained in detention in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, after his arrest in 2006, just two years after his installation as the third patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church. For 16 years, he was kept in solitary confinement under the orders of the country’s authoritarian leader, President Isaias Afwerki, for his resistance to government interference in the church.
Eritrea has long been on the US State Department’s list of worst religious freedom violators and is ranked No. 6 on Open Doors’ 2022 list of worst Christian persecution.
“It is very regrettable that the Patriarch died in custody. There was no reason for the Eritrean government to detain him,” Francis Kuria, the general of the African Council of Religious Leaders, told RNS on February 11. “The Orthodox Church in Eritrea and elsewhere is always very supportive of development.”
Archbishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church of London announced the loss on social media, saying the patriarch had died “after a long battle with illness and an even more painful battle with injustice”.
Antonios was buried on February 10 in the capital in a monastery to which he belonged. A large crowd gathered at the burial site, many of whom had walked long distances, according to reports.
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“We pray rest for His Holiness, and comfort and support for our #EritreanOrthodox sisters and brothers in Eritrea, Britain and around the world,” Angaelos said in a statement. Tweeter February 9.
The Patriarch’s death in custody is likely to widen the split within the Eritrean Orthodox Church, sparked by the leader’s estrangement and mistreatment.
In 2007, with the support of the Eritrean government, Antonios was replaced as patriarch by Abune Dioskoros. However, many adherents and clergy in Eritrea and the Diaspora continued to follow Antonios during his detention.
One of the Patriarch’s consistent advocates, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), explains:
Very early in his reign as Patriarch, Abune Antonios faced state interference in his Church. He resisted government demands to excommunicate 3,000 members and protested the arrest of priests. On January 20, 2006, authorities informed Patriarch Antonios that he would be removed from his position as Patriarch and placed him under house arrest.
A year later, on January 20, 2007, authorities confiscated Patriarch Antonios’ personal papal insignia. On May 27, 2007, the Eritrean government replaced Patriarch Antonios with Bishop Dioscoros de Mendefera, forcibly expelled the Patriarch from his home and detained him in an undisclosed location. Patriarch Antonios is still being held incommunicado and is believed to be denied medical care as he suffers from severe diabetes. On July 16, 2017, authorities allowed Antonios to make a public appearance for the first time in over a decade. While under tight security, Antonios attended mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Asmara, but was prevented from giving a sermon or speaking with congregants afterwards. Three days later, on July 19, the government moved Antonios to a new location, ostensibly to provide better living conditions.
In 2019, bishops of the Holy Synod of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church excommunicated Antonios, accusing him of heresy, a move condemned by the Standing Conference of Oriental Orthodox Churches.
Antonios’ death has brought to light the continued persecution and lack of religious freedom in Eritrea.
Eritrea’s authoritarian regime, one of the most repressive in the world, often arbitrarily arrests, detains and imprisons its people because of their faith, according to human rights and anti-persecution groups.
The US State Department estimates that there are between 1,200 and 3,000 prisoners held for their faith. USCIRF has over 45 cases on its casualty list; Abune Antonios was prisoner #260.
Currently, only the Roman Catholic Church, the Coptic Orthodox Church, Sunni Islam, and the Evangelical Church affiliated with the Lutheran Church of Eritrea are legally permitted religious groups.
Some religious leaders from the Orthodox, Full Gospel and Jehovah’s Witness faiths have remained in prison for more than 15 years, according to human rights organizations.
“We call on the Eritrean government to create an enabling environment where freedom of religion and belief is fully exercised. There should be no reason to imprison religious people (people for their faith),” Kuria said. “The government should support religious leaders as partners. Action to coerce religion and religious leaders is counterproductive.
According to Kuria, the problem in Eritrea is that the government suppresses all alternative voices, even the softer and more conservative ones, in an effort to be the sole source of authority.
Antonios was arrested after criticizing government excesses and resisting continued interference by authorities in the affairs of the Orthodox Church.
While in custody, Antonios was denied the right to attend religious services and was not allowed any visitors, including his followers, clergy or relatives. He was not given the opportunity to challenge his detention in court.
“Despite 16 years of relentless pressure, abuse and defamation, the patriarch never compromised, even if it would have led to his reinstatement,” said Mervyn Thomas, Founder and Chairman of CSW (Christian Solidarity Worldwide) , in a February 10 statement. “He chose instead to protect the integrity and doctrine of the church entrusted to him at the cost of freedom and comfort in his twilight years.”
Thomas urged the international community to honor the patriarch’s courageous stand for religious freedom by galvanizing efforts to secure the release of three Orthodox priests for whom Antonios has advocated as well as thousands of other detained for reasons of conscience, religion and belief.
Additional reports by CT