Eritrean Orthodox patriarch dies after 15 years under house arrest

Patriarch Antonios pictured in 2020.
Patriarch Antonios pictured in 2020. | Christian Solidarity Worldwide

Abune Antonios, the former head of Eritrea’s Orthodox church, has died at the age of 94 after spending 15 years in detention as a prisoner of conscience for resisting the Eritrean government’s interference in church affairs.

Patriarch Antonios, who was removed from administrative control of the Patriarchate in 2005 and put under house arrest in 2007, died Wednesday morning, the U.K.-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide reported.

The patriarch’s body was taken to the Abune Andreas monastery, to which he belonged, for the burial on Thursday morning, the group said, adding that a large crowd gathered at his burial site, many of whom had traveled long distances on foot.

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Antonios was removed for reasons including refusing to expel 3,000 members of the Orthodox renewal movement, Medhane Alem, for speaking out against the detention of three priests from the movement, and for objecting to the imposition of Yoftahe Demitros, a pro-government lay person, as its general secretary, CSW said.

He was deposed in January 2006 following secret meetings of the Holy Synod that were convened in contravention of the church canon.

Antonios was first put under de facto arrest in his official residence until May 7, 2007, when his personal pontifical insignia and clothing were seized, and he was officially placed under house arrest in an undisclosed location in the Eritrean capital, Asmara.

A few months later, he was illegally replaced by Bishop Dioscoros, a clergyman approved of by the Eritrean government, but who remained unrecognized by the Orthodox papacy in Egypt until his death in 2015.

Since 2017, the patriarch was only seen in smuggled videos in which he continued to fearlessly criticize the conditions and grounds of his detention.

In 2019, five pro-government bishops signed a statement accusing the patriarch of having committed heresy, stripping him of all official authority and effectively excommunicating him.

“Abune Antonios was a deeply principled man who prioritized his calling over the politicization of the Church by a regime deemed to have committed crimes against humanity since 1991,” CSW’s founder and President Mervyn Thomas said.

“Despite 16 years of unremitting pressure, mistreatment and defamation, the patriarch never compromised, even when it could have led to his reinstatement. He chose instead to protect the integrity and doctrine of the Church with which he had been entrusted, at the cost of freedom and comfort in his twilight years,” Thomas added.

Eritrea’s President Isaias Afewerki is a member of the Eritrean Orthodox Church in Asmara — belonging to the largest among the only three Christian denominations allowed to function in the country: the Eritrean Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches.

Afewerki, 75, who’s the leader of the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice Party, also has a reputation of being an alcoholic and a ruthless autocrat. Afewerki’s policy of restrictions is more about his fear that religion will mobilize people as a political force than religion itself.

When arrested, Eritrea’s persecuted Christians often disappear without a trace, leaving their loved ones with no information on their whereabouts or safety. Prison conditions are some of the harshest in the world, with inmates kept in shipping containers and believers often tortured in an attempt to get them to renounce their faith.

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