Eritrean Patriarch Spends Decade Under House Arrest

26 May 2017

His Holiness Abune Antonios, the legitimate Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox (Tewahdo) Church, tomorrow marks his tenth year of incommunicado house arrest.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) remains gravely concerned about the wellbeing of His Holiness Abune Antonios, the legitimate Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox (Tewahdo) Church, who tomorrow marks his tenth year of incommunicado house arrest in an unknown location. There are reports of a severe deterioration in his health, possibly as a result of poisoning.

In January 2006, the 89 year-old patriarch was removed from office, in violation of canon law, after objecting to undue government interference in church affairs. He had refused requests for the closure the Medhanie Alem Church, which was linked with the Orthodox renewal movement, and demands for the excommunication of 3,000 of its members. Patriarch Antonios had also objected to the detention in November 2004 of three Orthodox priests from the Medhanie Alem Church, and to unwarranted intrusion in the administration of the Patriarchate by Mr. Yoftahe Dimetros, a government-appointed layperson who had assumed a position within the Church's Holy Synod in another contravention of canon law. 

Reports of Patriarch Antonios' removal were initially denied by the government.  However, on 20 January 2007, two priests accompanied by three security agents arrived at his official residence and confiscated his personal pontifical insignia. Then on 27 May 2007, the patriarch was forcibly evicted from his official residence by members of the Eritrean security forces at around 5 am local time, and transported to an undisclosed location.

Recent reports from sources close to CSW and repeated in an article on the Eritrean website Assenna.com allege that the patriarch was transported to a healthcare facility in Edaga Hamus on or around 7 May 2017 on the pretext of receiving a medical examination, which he said he did not require.  Once there, Abune Antonios was allegedly injected with a substance that caused him to fall gravely ill, with symptoms that reportedly include severe pain in the spine and diarrhea.  His deterioration was reported to be so severe that the Eritrean Orthodox Church Diocese of North America, Europe and Middle East issued a call to prayer.

The patriarch, who suffers from severe diabetes and high blood pressure, will turn 90 on 12 July 2017.

In December 2015, the Bishop of Mendefera, Abune Dioscoros, who replaced the patriarch in violation of the church's constitution, died following a lengthy and debilitating illness. Subsequently, on 8 August 2016, the Eritrean Orthodox Church website in Asmara published pictures of a meeting between Patriarch Antonios and a delegation of monks, scholars and government officials. The website also published a letter on headed paper that it claimed the patriarch had signed, in which he purportedly apologised for any intentional or unintended wrongs he may have committed that led to his removal. The website indicated he was soon to be released; however, this version of events was debunked by several credible sources.

CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said: “Tomorrow marks ten years of the unjust incarceration of an innocent man who is already in frail health. The government has stripped him systematically of his liberty and of every possession related to his position.  However, it has failed to strip him of his dignity and lacks the capacity to take away his calling.  Patriarch Antonios remains the legitimate leader of the Eritrean Orthodox Church and has not been forgotten. CSW continues to call for his immediate and unconditional release and reinstatement. We also to urge the international community not only to express concern at the patriarch’s plight, but to also remind the Eritrean authorities that his removal constituted an unlawful interference in church affairs, and to request his immediate release and return to office.”

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