- ELLIS HEASLEY and Dr KHATAZA GONDWE
In the early hours of February 9, Abune Antonios, the rightful Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, deceased at the age of 94.
He was buried the following day at the Abune Andreas Monastery, where he had belonged since the age of five, in front of a large crowd that had gathered to mark the burial of a courageous and deeply principled leader whose passing is a tough test. reminder of the injustices of the Eritrean regime.
Eritrean Patriarch Abune Antonios in an undated photo. PHOTO: Courtesy of CSW.
“We can and should draw much inspiration from the Patriarch’s courageous commitment to truth and justice.”
Although he was appointed in April 2004, Abune Antonios spent the vast majority of his patriarchy under house arrest after being removed from the administrative control of the patriarchy in August 2005 and ultimately deposed in January 2006. He remained in de facto arrest. in his official residence until May 2007, when his personal papal insignia and vestments were seized, and he was officially placed under house arrest at an undisclosed location in the Eritrean capital, Asmara.
The removal of the Patriarch, staged in violation of Church canon, was a direct result of his resistance to repeated interference by the Eritrean government in Church affairs. Specifically, he refused to expel 3,000 members of the Orthodox revival movement known as Medhane Alem and protested the detention in November 2004 of three said movement priests, whom he had previously refused to remove from office. He had also opposed the imposition of Yoftahe Demitros, a pro-government layman, as Orthodox general secretary, a post reserved for the clergy.
It is not surprising that the Eritrean regime reacted with such hostility to his efforts. In 1994, he closed the official Orthodox and Evangelical Lutheran publications. He also arbitrarily appointed a Sunni mufti. In May 2002, it effectively banned religious practices unaffiliated with the Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran or Orthodox Christian faiths, or Sunni Islam, and has maintained an intense level of control over the religious affairs of these groups ever since.
Those who belong to unrecognized groups have suffered since then, with thousands of adherents reportedly held indefinitely without charge or trial, and often cyclically, since 2002. They are generally held in inhumane and life-threatening conditions, where they can suffer torture or even death.
It is often difficult to determine the extent of the violations perpetrated against the Eritrean people. In the case of Patriarch Antonios, he has spent much of the past 15 years entirely hidden from public view, except for a well-managed appearance at St. Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral in Asmara in July 2017, it was a false display of church unity. However, he was returned to custody, this time to the servants’ quarters of two pro-government bishops, after he insisted on the public dismissal of the charges against him as assurance of genuine reconciliation, and on his terms of house arrest. , which had been relaxed somewhat, has become stricter again.
Patriarch Antonios was initially illegally replaced by Bishop Dioscoros de Mendefera in 2007, a clergyman approved by the Eritrean government, but who remained unrecognized by the Orthodox papacy in Egypt until his death from a long and debilitating illness in 2015. Later in July 2019, following the leak of a video in which he criticized the reasons for his detention, he was indeed excommunicated after five pro-government bishops signed a statement accusing him of committing heresy. Weeks later, the government announced the election of its second illegal replacement, and unconfirmed reports emerged for the second time since 2017 that he was forcibly injected with an unknown substance that had a detrimental impact on his health.
Throughout it all, the Patriarch has remained openly critical of the Eritrean regime, mostly through videos and statements smuggled out of the country.
In a particularly powerful rebuke dated September 2008, he wrote: “Even if, in the most unlikely event, you may raise legitimate grievances against me, is it not proper for the accused to be confronted with his accusers, to be presented with the charges in a formal and appropriate manner? constitute an ecclesiastical tribunal and give the accused the right to defend himself? Instead, you appointed yourselves – the accusers themselves – jury and judges in order to accomplish your sordid plans. Your accusations are all baseless. For this unlawful act on your part, the first in the long history of our apostolic faith and tradition, therefore, the Canon and Constitution of our church will judge you.
We can and must draw much inspiration from the Patriarch’s courageous commitment to truth and justice. Today, thousands of people like him remain imprisoned in Eritrea, often simply because of their religion or their conscience beliefs. They are held captive by a regime that rises accused of committing crimes against humanity since 1991, and is now also held responsible for equally gross violations in the neighboring region of Tigray from Ethiopia.
We must honor Patriarch Antonios’ unwavering stand for human rights and freedom of religion or belief, especially by continuing to speak out against the regime’s atrocities, advocating for the release of thousands of prisoners of conscience and urging parliamentarians from our own countries to hold Eritrea to account in the international arena, including at the International Criminal Court.
Ellis Heasley is Head of Public Affairs and Dr Khataza Gondwe is Co-Head of Advocacy, both at the UK-based Religious Freedom Defense CSW.