WASHINGTON DC 11 February 2022 | Patriarch Abune Antonios passed away at the age of 96, while still under detention by Eritrean authorities for protesting the Eritrean regime's persecution of Christians and refusing to allow the authorities to dictate Church membership.
On February 9th 2022, Patriarch Abune Antonios passed away in the early hours of the morning, local time, while still in solitary confinement. Patriarch Antonios was the third Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox church. The Eritrean authorities arrested the Patriarch in the beginning of 2006 for refusing to cave to government pressure, requiring him to excommunicate some 3,000 members of the Medhane Alem Sunday School Movement, they also disliked his public condemnation of their arrest of three Orthodox priests. They forcibly removed the Patriarch from his post just two years after his installation.
Authorities kept the Patriarch in solitary confinement under the orders of Eritrea's authoritarian leader, President Isaias Afwerki. Only briefly on July 16, 2017, did the authorities allow Antonios to make a public appearance by attending a mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Asmara. It was however, under heavy security, with authorities preventing him from giving a sermon or speaking with any of the congregants. In 2019, bishops of the Holy Synod of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church excommunicated Antonios, accusing him of heresy, the Standing Conference of Oriental Orthodox Churches, a higher authority of the Orthodox Church, stood by him. Human Rights Concern Eritrea highlighted the mistreatment by the Eritrean authorities of the Patriarch during his 16 years of unlawful detention and "house" arrest which included:
- The denial of the Patriarch’s right to freely attend church services.
- The denial of the Patriarch’s right to challenge his illegal detention in a court of law.
- The denial of visitors.
Imprisoned by Eritrean authorities since January 2006, the Patriarch is the longest serving prisoner of conscience of the Eritrean regime. His taste of freedom, never granted by the country meant to protect him.
Imprisoned by Eritrean authorities in January 2006, the Patriarch is the longest serving prisoner of conscience of the Eritrean regime.
Freedom of Religion or Belief in Eritrea
Eritrea, known as the north Korea of Africa, continues to deny its citizens freedom of religion or belief. While the government officially recognizes a few religions [the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, and Sunni Islam], authorities still constantly monitor these groups and arrest them if they do not quietly adhere to the strict demands of the authorities and stay silent on persecution. In 2021, the government closed the last remaining Catholic-owned and operated educational institutions.
For unrecognised religious groups persecution is especially harsh. In September 2021, for example, Open Doors reported how Eritrean authorities re-arrested 15 Christians and took them to a maximum security prison in Asmara following raids on their homes. Some of them had already served over 10 years in prison for their faith. The EU placed sanctions on the National Security Office (a.k.a. National Security Agency) of the Government of Eritrea in March 2021 for its "serious human rights violations," including arbitrary [unlawful] arrests, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and torture.
There are also growing reports of the Eritrean army having committed crimes against humanity outside its borders in Tigray, Ethiopia. The US treasury department sanctioned Eritrea's military leader in August 2021 for carrying out serious human rights abuses in Tigray, but may be backing on their condemnations as EU and other countries act indecisively. Jubilee Campaign submitted both written and oral statements [with Human Rights Concern Eritrea] on some of these violations at the Human Rights Council's 47th session last year, reporting on the serious human rights violations in Tigray along with its continued arrest and detention of Christians.
As the Human Rights Council kicks off at the end of this month, the human rights situation in Eritrea will be discussed. Eritrea, once sanctioned by the UN Security Council, had its sanctions lifted when it signed the peace deal with Ethiopia in 2018; yet Eritrea's grave human rights violations have not ceased. In addition, Eritrea continues to deny the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea access to the country. Eritrea remains a country of concern and there must be concerted and unified action to put pressure on Eritrea, sanctions or threats of sanction have so far proven to be the only way to move Eritrean regime.