Controversy Surrounds New Eritrean Church Head

Christians and human rights groups condemned the Eritrean government – infamous for Christian persecution – for what they claim is the government's orchestration of the appointment of the new Eritrean Orthodox head.

Controversy is building over the fourth Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church (EOC), His Holiness Abune Dioskoros, who Eritrea claims was unanimously approved by the Holy Synod, according to Eritrea's Ministry of Information.

The appointment on Apr. 19 came 16 months after the ordained and recognized pontiff was removed from office for unknown reasons.

"This is yet another low in the sad litany of Eritrean government interference in church affairs," said Mervyn Thomas, chief executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, in a statement on Tuesday.

Eritrean opposition and human rights groups claim that government-appointed Yoftahe Dimetros, a lay-person who assumed the role of general secretary of the Holy Synod in violation of the Church's constitution, was behind the selection of the new Patriarch. Dimetros is also accused of being instrumental in the removal of the former Patriarch.

In January 2006, Patriarch Abune Antonios, 79, was illegally removed from his position for his criticism of the Eritrean government's interference in church activities and their persecution of evangelical churches, according to prominent human rights group Amnesty International.

Since his removal, Antonios is said to be under stringent house arrest.

"In addition to the appalling mistreatment of the legitimate pontiff, who continues to be held without charge or trial, the Eritrean authorities appear determined to usurp the authority to appoint a leader for a church with a 17-century history," said Thomas. "Such an unprecedented level of state interference in church affairs is wholly unacceptable in this day and age."

Despite his absence, Antonios is still recognized as the church's legitimate head by the Coptic Orthodox headquarters in the Egyptian city of Alexandria.

Eritrea has long come under international criticism for severe religious freedom violations with the U.S. Department of State designating it for the third straight year as a "Country of Particular Concern" – the worst religious freedom violation label.

Reports indicate that government officials disrupt private worship, conduct mass arrests during religious weddings and prayer meetings, and detain Christians without trial or specific charges.

Among the most severely persecuted are the country's newer Christian groups such as the Protestant Evangelicals and Pentecostals.

The historic Orthodox Church – with roots back to the 4th century – formerly had a close relationship with the government. However, the government has increasingly cracked down on the Church as it undergoes a revival in evangelism efforts, according to the Voice of the Martyrs.

It is estimated that some 2,000 Christians are currently detained without trial or charge in Eritrea.

According to Eritrea's Ministry of Information website, Dioskoros' official convocation ceremony is planned for May 27-28.

"The hijacking of the church by the government that has been underway for quite sometimes is now completed," said a statement by opposition priests, monks and deacons of the Church, according to Middle East Times.