The Eritrean Orthodox Church Tewahdo (EOC) has planned two peaceful demonstrations in the United States (US) calling for the release and reinstatement of the church’s legitimate leader, Patriarch Antonios, who has been under house arrest for over a decade.
The first demonstration, organised by St Gabriel’s Eritrean Orthodox Church in New York, will take place outside the United Nations (UN) headquarters on 24 October, which is UN Day. Protestors will be handing in a petition calling on the UN to intervene to secure the patriarch’s release.
The second demonstration will take place in Washington DC on 8 November, and is organised by the North America Archdiocese of the EOC. The Archdiocese has asked “Eritreans and other people of good will who love justice” to join in a call for freedom for Patriarch Antonios and “other Eritreans who are suffering in prison.”
Patriarch Antonios, 92, has been under house arrest since January 2007, after he was removed from office in 2006 in violation of canon law, for repeatedly objecting to government interference in ecclesiastical affairs and refusing to expel 3000 members of the Orthodox renewal movement, Medhane Alem. His removal cemented the government’s control of the EOC, and created a schism in the Church.
The Church schism was deepened further by the release of a statement dated 17 July, ostensibly from six bishops but signed only by five of them, which accused Abune Antonios of having committed heresy and stripped him of all official authority. The letter effectively excommunicated the patriarch, stating that “his name should never be mentioned and remembered, and those who do will be punished severely.” However, in a video recorded on 19 April 2019 which was used as a pretext for his ‘excommunication’, Abune Antonios said of his detractors: “The Eritrean Synod are the accusers and adjudicators, without listening to my side. They broke the law of the Eritrean Orthodox Church.”
Elizabeth Chyrum, Director of Human Rights Concern-Eritrea (HRC-E), said: “HRCE and CSW have been campaigning for the patriarch since 2006. We stand in solidarity with the EOC as its members call for the immediate release and reinstatement of the Church’s legitimate leader, who has been removed illegally and unjustly by people who lack both the moral and the professional authority to do so. The fact that this is the first time that the EOC has organized demonstrations illustrates the gravity of the Patriarch’s current plight.”
According to local sources Patriarch Antonios, who is severely diabetic and suffers from high blood pressure, is currently being kept in isolation and is not allowed visits, even from family members. Additionally, and in what would amount to a further violation of canon law, it appears the patriarch may be replaced once again, this time by Bishop Petros (Araya) of Assab, who is currently the acting patriarch, or Locum Tenens. A post on the Eritrean Ministry of Information’s website dated 11 September states that ‘His Holiness Abune Petros, Archbishop of the Eritrean Tewahdo Orthodox Church’ delivered the benediction for Geez New Year. Patriarch Antonios’ first illegal replacement, Bishop Dioscoros of Mendefera, died in December 2015, following a lengthy and debilitating illness. In July a petition seeking to prevent the ordination of Bishop Petros and calling for the patriarch’s release was launched on Change.org.
CSW’s Head of Advocacy Khataza Gondwe said: “Since 2006 the Eritrean government and its accomplices within the EOC have stripped Patriarch Antonios of his liberty and of every possession relating to his position in a cruel and systematic manner. They continuously defame his character and have now placed him in isolation. However, their efforts to diminish the patriarch and strip him of his calling have failed dismally. Instead they have highlighted his dignity and integrity, and have increased his stature. Together with HRC-E, we continue to call for the immediate and unconditional release and reinstatement of Abune Antonios. We also echo the EOC’s call for urgent international interventions with the Eritrean government to ascertain his wellbeing, including through visits by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), or by relevant officials from the African Union, the UN, or the European Union Delegation based in Asmara.”