For the first time since being placed under house arrest in 2007, the legitimate patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church made a public appearance and participated in a mass at St. Mary's Cathedral in Asmara on Sunday, according to an international human rights organization.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which operates in over 20 countries to advance religious freedom and report human rights abuses, has confirmed that His Holiness Abune Antonios participated in a worship service Sunday, which was attended by hundreds of Christian worshipers.
Sources told CSW that the patriarch's rare appearance is "a profound answer to many prayers and much pressure."
CSW, which received United Nations accreditation earlier this year, reports that it is unclear as to whether the patriarch's release from house arrest is temporary or conditional.
"It is encouraging to hear that Patriarch Antonios was able to participate in a mass after a decade of incommunicado incarceration. We await clarification regarding the terms of his release, and our profound hope is that the patriarch is finally free and will be reinstated unconditionally," CSW Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said in a statement.
"We also remember the tens of thousands of prisoners of conscience of all faiths and none still languishing in indefinite detention in Eritrea, including the four Orthodox priests and eight Protestant leaders, and reiterate our call for their immediate and unconditional release."
Eritrea ranks as the 10th worst nation in the world when it comes to Christian persecution on Open Doors USA's 2017 World Watch List. According to Open Doors, Eritrea's authoritarian government is "intolerant towards any form of association, dissent and free expression." Open Doors states that the government tries to "control all religious institutions" and that was "particularly evident" when Antonios was deposed as the head of the Eritrean Orthodox Church.
According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, the 90-year-old Antonios drew the ire of the government by calling for the release of political prisoners and by refusing to excommunicate 3,000 parishioners who opposed the authoritarian regime.
"One year later, on January 20, 2007, authorities confiscated Patriarch Antonios' personal pontifical insignia. On May 27, 2007, the Eritrean government replaced Patriarch Antonios with Bishop Dioscoros of Mendefera, forcefully removed the Patriarch from his home, and placed him under house arrest at an undisclosed location," a USCIRF report states, adding that he had been denied medical care for his diabetes.
Antonios had also regularly spoken out against the government's interference in church affairs since his ordination in 2004, according to CSW.
Antonios' reported reappearance comes amid increasing international pressure from bodies such as the United Nations, the European Parliament and USCIRF. USCIRF Chair Thomas Reese has personally advocated for Antonios as part of USCIRF's Religious Prisoners of Conscience Project.
CSW reports that in August 2016, the Eritrean Orthodox Church website in Asmara published pictures of a meeting between the patriarch and a group of monks, scholars and government officials. The charity notes that the church website also published a document that purported to be an apology from Antonios for wrongs he may have committed. The website claimed that Antonios would soon be released. However, CSW notes that the website's version of events have been "debunked" by credible sources.