Church sources have confirmed that the head of the Eritrean Orthodox Church has died after almost 15 years in government incarceration.
According to reports from Eritrea, 94-year-old Abune Antonios died on Wednesday, (9th February) at the Church residence in the capital, Asmara where he was being kept under house arrest by state authorities.
Neville Kyrke-Smith – national director of the Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need (UK), which advocated for the release of the patriarch as part of its 2020 Set Your Captives Free campaign – expressed his sadness at his death.
He said: “Eritrea’s Christians have lost a remarkable leader who stood up for religious freedom in the face of government aggression and coercion.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with all Eritrean Orthodox Christians who are mourning the loss of this great figure in the history of their Church.
“His witness of peaceful resistance against state oppression speaks loudly to a world where governments are increasingly trying to silence religious believers, and we continue to remember all Christians being held in jail, both in Eritrea and elsewhere, because of their faith.”
News agencies first suggested that he had died on Wednesday (9th February), and UK-based religious freedom charity CSW reported that yesterday (Thursday, 10th February) his body was taken to Abune Andreas monastery, where he was buried at 9am, local time.
CSW added that local sources reported large crowds gathering at his gravesite, many of the mourners having travelled long distances on foot to pay their respects.
Abune Antonios, who became Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Tawahedo Church in 2004, was placed under house arrest since 2007 – even though no formal charges were brought against him – after he denied government requests to excommunicate 3,000 Church members, and spoke out about the imprisonment of Christians, including three Orthodox priests.
In May 2007, the Eritrean government seized the patriarch from his home and installed Bishop Dioscoros of Mendefera as state-sanctioned head of the Church.
Oriental Orthodox sources have suggested that his deposition was engineered so that the government could seize control of the Church.
Abune Antonios was kept in isolation for most of his time in detention, reportedly being denied medical care despite suffering from diabetes and high blood pressure.
In 2019, the synod of the Eritrean Orthodox Tawahedo Church excommunicated him for “heresy”.
According to the British Orthodox Church the synod “ceased to have any credibility as the canonical authority of the Eritrean church at the moment that it concurred in the illegal removal of the Patriarch and supported the usurpation of the government-sponsored anti-patriarch, Dioscoros; the ‘Holy Synod’ is recognised as the mouth-piece of the Eritrean government.”