In 2006 the canonical Patriarch of Eritrea, Abune Antonios, was forcibly removed from office for repeatedly objecting to government interference in ecclesiastical affairs and refusing to expel 3,000 members of the Church’s renewal movement, Medhane Alem, which was accused of being heretical. He was subsequently placed under house arrest.
The Eritrean government encouraged rebel bishops to replace him with Bishop Dioskoros (Hagos) of Seraye (1937-2015), whom they appointed ‘Patriarch’ in April 2007, although after the anti-Patriarch’s death in December 2015 no further attempt was made to choose a successor, although Abune Antonios was not restored to effective oversight of the church.
Following international outrage at the treatment of Patriarch Antonios and of the involvement of the authoritarian government of President Isaias Afwerki, the Eritrean Orthodox Church’s official website, published a letter from the Church’s Holy Synod announcing that the rift resulting from his removal from office had been resolved. It also published photographs of the Patriarch and ‘Reconciliation Committee’ consisting of members of the “Union of the Monasteries and Church Scholars”, who had participated in a process that had allegedly ended in a “full reconciliation”. Significantly, although the signatures of the attendees appeared on this letter, the Patriarch’s did not. After almost a decade under house arrest, Abune Antonios appeared again in public at St Mary’s Cathedral, Asmara on 16 July 2016 for a service that was announced as a ‘Reconciliation’, although he was surrounded by guards during the Liturgy, which he did not celebrate himself, and plain-clothed policemen forbade those attending from taking any pictures. During the service a statement from the ‘Reconciliation Committee’ was read to the congregation by a deacon.
However, the government continued to exercise control of the church through Bishop Lukas, who although consecrated by Abune Antonios, proved strongly pro-government, and had been appointed General Secretary of the Holy Synod. Abune Antonios is currently confined to the ‘servant’s quarters’ of the villa inhabited by Bishop Lukas, and has long been abandoned by surrounding clergy who have not cared for his health or well-being. Abune Antonios, who is now aged 90, suffers from chronic diabetes and high blood pressure and there are also allegations that on or around 7 May 2017 he was injected with a substance that had caused him to become gravely ill.
In its recent statement dated 17 July, the Holy Synod on behalf of its six bishops (but which was mysteriously lacking the signature of Bishop Kirillos of Akele Guzay – Adi Keyih) Abune Antonios was accused of heresy and is once again deprived of all authority, although the Synod states that it will continue providing him with food and shelter. Bishop Lukas, for the first time making a public allegation, in which he accuses the Patriarch of Protestantising tendencies states that the Patriarch had ‘lost his faith’ in St. Mary, the Theotokos.
The Chief Executive of Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Mervyn Thomas, writes: “The attempt to excommunicate Patriarch Antonios entirely lacks legitimacy, as those behind have neither the moral nor the positional authority to issue this pronouncement. It is a desperate move, providing a clear indication that the patriarch’s will and spirit remain unbroken, despite being subjected to circumstances, pressures and humiliations designed to elicit his resignation or even demise.”
Abba Seraphim, who in 1994 was ordained Metropolitan by the late Pope Shenouda in Cairo, at the same Liturgy as Abune Antonios was consecrated to the episcopate, has long championed the cause of Abune Antonios and urges all religious leaders and activists to uphold him and the Eritrean Orthodox Church in prayer. “There are still many young Eritrean Christian refugees from their iniquitous régime – who through the Providence of God arrive on our shores – and although the British Orthodox Church has resumed its independence, we have always welcomed them warmly and maintain regular prayer both for Abune Antonios and the plight of Eritrean Christians generally”.