His Holiness Abune Antonios, patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church who spent the last 16 years in solitary confinement in prison, has died.
In a Twitter message, His Holiness Anba Angaelos, Archbishop of the Coptic Orthodox Church in London, announced that Antonios, 94, passed away February 9 in the Eritrean capital Asmara following a protracted illness. He was buried February 10 at the Debre Tsege Abuna Andrewes monastery in Asmara, where he began his monastic studies at age 5.
Antonios was arrested in 2006, two years after he was installed as the third patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church. He was kept in detention on the orders of Eritrea’s dictatorial leader President Isaias Afwerki for resisting government interference in the church, reports Religion News Service.
Among other issues, Antonios was accused of refusing to excommunicate 3,000 members of the Medhane Alem, a renewal movement within the Eritrean Tewahedo Orthodox Church, and for demanding that the government release imprisoned Christians accused of treason.
Antonios was not permitted to participate in church services during his detention. Nor was he allowed visitors or a trial.
Born July 12, 1927, in Himberti, a town north of Asmara, Antonios was ordained as a priest in 1942 and elected abbot in 1955. In 1994, he and four other abbots traveled to Egypt to establish a Holy Synod for what would later become the autocephalous Eritrean Orthodox Church, one of Eritrea’s largest religious denominations.
“Very early in his reign as patriarch, Abune Antonios confronted state interference within his church,” according to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, USCIRF. On May 27, 2007, the Eritrean government replaced him with Bishop Dioscoros of Mendefera and forced Antonios from his home, where he had been under house arrest, and took him to an undisclosed location.
“Despite 16 years of unremitting pressure, mistreatment, and defamation, the patriarch never compromised, even when it would have led to his reinstatement,” said Mervyn Thomas, president of Christian Solidarity Worldwide.
In the 2021 annual report of Christian advocacy group Open Doors, Eritrea ranked sixth on a global list of 50 countries where Christians are targeted for their faith.
According to Britanica.com, half of Eritrean citizens are Christian, and members of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church comprise some 40 percent of them.
The United States has long considered Eritrea one of the world’s worst violators of religious liberty and the U.S. State Department designates it as a “Country of Particular Concern” for “having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”
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