Eritrea’s Orthodox patriarch, Abune Antonios, who was placed under house arrest by the government in 2007, has been expelled by pro-government bishops in his church on accusations of heresy, the BBC reported.
The attempt to excommunicate is widely seen as symptomatic of Eritrea’s government push for more political control over the Eritrean Orthodox Church (EOC).
The announcement came one day after Eritrea’s Christian gospel singer Helen Berhane, who was imprisoned for her faith, raised the issue of religious persecution and the plight of the 90-year-old church leader with US President Donald Trump during the 2nd Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom and Belief last month in Washington.
Our Helen Berhane, the gospel singer #Eritrea, with #PresidentTrump raising the issue of religious persecution in the country and on the fate of Abune Antonios, a day before his excommunication by the regime #Yiakl #Kifaya pic.twitter.com/NJshycrJhM
— Mohamed Kheir Omer (@mkheirom) July 20, 2019
Patriarch Abune Antonios was removed by the Asmara government and placed under house arrest in 2007 after he refused to comply with the regime’s attempts to interfere with church affairs. The event led to a schism in the EOC with a pro-government group supporting a new government-approved replacement who was not recognised by the Papacy in Egypt who installed the patriarch and his predecessors, as reported by ICN.
Following international pressure Antonios made a first public appearance in 2017 as he participated in a mass which rights called a “marketing exercise” by the government.
He remained under house arrest but in April filmed a video that was broadcast in which he reportedly talked about his circumstances and criticised the fact the Church was being led by a layman. The patriarch, who is suffering from health problems, allegedly also said his fellow clergy did not care for his wellbeing. He is currently staying in servant’s quarters of the house owned by the pro-government Bishop Lukas, who himself has ambitions to become the next patriarch, said ICN.
Apparently referring to the video, the pro-government bishops said in a letter explaining their decision to expel the church’s legitimate leader, it was ‘recent activities’ by Abune Antonios that had raised questions about the sincerity of his repentance and that they were concerned about the growing risk of heresy in the church. They did, however, say they would continue to provide the patriarch with food and a place to stay.
In May, a monitoring group for the UN said “thousands” of Christians are facing detention as “religious freedom continue[s] to be denied in Eritrea” and questioned why the UN was not monitoring the situation more closely.
Eritrea is 7th on Open Doors International’s 2019 World Watch List of the 50 countries in which it is most difficult to live as a Christian.