The former head of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, who is widely believed to have been forcibly removed from office by the government, was relocated to an undisclosed locale to prevent his meeting a visiting U.S. delegation, reported a Christian persecution watchdog group Tuesday.
Patriarch Abune Antonios, who has been under house arrest since January 2006, was moved from his normal residence during the visiting delegation led by Rep. Donald Payne (D-N.J.) in early January, International Christian Concern learned this week. Antonios was returned to his residence 10 days after Congressman Payne left, reported the group.
The U.S. delegation instead met and interviewed with a group of religious leaders in Eritrea who "all" said there is "freedom of religion in the country and that Muslims and Christians co-existed peacefully for centuries," a member of the Congressional delegation (whose name was not provided) recalled in an interview with ICC.
The Eritrean leaders' reports of religious freedom contradict those of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which has repeatedly for three straight years listed Eritrea under "Countries of Particular Concern" (CPCs) – the label given to the worst religious freedom violators.
It is estimated that some 2,000 Christians are currently detained without trial or charge in Eritrea with some in metal containers and others routinely tortured.
"The Eritrean government should release all Christians who are imprisoned for their faith in Christ and ensure freedom of religion in the country," said ICC's regional manager for Africa, Darara Gubo, in a statement Tuesday. "The international community should exert pressure on the Eritrean government to secure the release of Christians who are imprisoned due to their refusal to renounce their faith in Christ Jesus."
Patriarch Antonios is among those detained without charge and is under strict surveillance, according to ICC. The 80-year-old Patriarch reportedly seldom receives visitors, including relatives, and has no telephone service.
He also suffers from diabetes but the government has denied him medical attention. Antonios was removed after criticizing the government for interfering in church activities and for persecuting evangelical churches, according to the human rights group Amnesty International.
Following Antonios' official removal from office, the government appointed another Patriarch to replace him. The new Patriarch, Abune Dioskoros, is not recognized by the Coptic Orthodox Church and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, which have both denounced the imprisonment of Antonios and continue to recognize the imprisoned religious leader as the head of the Eritrean Orthodox Church.