In 2007, two priests accompanied by government security agents entered the residence of the Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Abune Antonios, and confiscated his personal pontifical insignia. Antonios was arrested for speaking out against the government’s interference in the matters of his Church. He was put under house arrest and strict state surveillance. Formal charges were never brought against him.
After more than a decade under house arrest in a case that was criticized by rights groups, France, the European Parliament, and the United States, Antonios passed away this week. The Eritrean Orthodox ex-leader died at the age of 94, church officials and a London-based religious rights group said Thursday, according to AFP.
“The patriarch’s body was taken to the Abune Andreas monastery, to which he belonged, and he was buried there on 10 February at 9am local time,” Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) said in a statement.
“Local sources report that a large crowd gathered at his burial site, many of whom had travelled long distances on foot,” the statement added.
Mervyn Thomas, the founder president of CSW, said the late patriarch was “a deeply principled man”. Indeed, Antonio was seen by many Eritreans especially those outside the country as a symbol of freedom and resistance against the government’s alleged involvement in religious and human rights violations.
Eritrea has been a dictatorship for more than 26 years in which there is no room for freely reported news and information. According to a June 2016 UN report, Eritrea’s President Issayas Afeworki is responsible for “crimes against humanity,” and has no plans to loosen his grip on the country. Some journalists have been detained without being charged or tried in the country. The government also closely manages how people in the country worship as part of efforts to maintain national unity, AFP reported.
Numbering six million, half of the population is Muslim while the other half is Christian. Currently, only four religious denominations are officially allowed — Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam and the Orthodox Church.
Antonios, who was head of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, sought to challenge the status quo. Born on July 12, 1927, his father sent him to be educated at a monastery when he was five years old. He served as a monk and was ordained a priest in 1942 and an abbot in 1955. In 2004, he became the third patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Tawahedo Church.
Just two years later, he was deposed as head of Eritrea’s Orthodox church and spiritual leader of more than two million people after he refused to excommunicate 3,000 government opponents and called for the release of political prisoners. Reports said Antonios protested the Eritrean Department of Religious Affairs’ interference in his church’s affairs.
On May 27, 2007, the government installed Bishop Dioscoros of Mendefera as the new Patriarch. It was on that same day that Antonios was forcibly removed from his residence and transported to an undisclosed location. For 10 years, he was not allowed to communicate with the outside world and was reportedly denied medical care.
On July 17, 2017, following increased international pressure for his release, the Eritrean government allowed Antonios to make a brief public appearance. He took part in a mass at Saint Mary’s Cathedral in the capital city, Asmara. And just when everyone thought the Patriarch had been released after 10 years in detention, the Eritrean government returned him into its custody, according to CSW.
“Unfortunately, it has become evident that Abune Antonios has not been released and, far less, reinstated. On the contrary, his reappearance seems to be part of an attempt by the authorities to take control of the narrative, following the wave of international pressure demanding his release,” the CSW said at the time.
To date, many say that he remained confined until his death. Last month, a human rights organization known as Human Rights Concern-Eritrea called on all member states of the United Nations to put pressure on the government of Eritrea to release the Orthodox ex-leader, saying that he has been unjustly kept in isolation.
The group wrote: “There has never been an opportunity for him to question and challenge this illegal detention in a court of law. He is detained arbitrarily and without charge or trial, solely at the whim of the Eritrean President and ruling clique in government.”
It continued: “The patriarch’s detention violates at least six fundamental principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, found in Articles 3(liberty of person), 8 (effective remedy), 9 (no arbitrary arrest or detention), 11 (presumed innocent until proven guilty),13 (freedom of movement), 18 (freedom of thought, conscience and religion), all of which have been denied him.”
The new patriarch appointed by Eritrean Orthodox leaders died in 2015. Antonios was however still seen by the leaders of the Egypt-based Coptic Orthodox Church as the legitimate head of Eritrea’s denomination. The United States regarded him as a prisoner of conscience and said his detention was a violation of religious freedom, according to the AFP.
“The US Embassy in Asmara is very sad to hear about the passing of Abune Antonios, Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, after being under house arrest for more than 15 years,” the embassy said on its Facebook page Thursday.