On 13 January 2006 a secret session of the Holy Synod of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewehedo Church was held in Asmara which formally removed Patriarch Antonios from office. The Patriarch had increasingly resisted government interference in church affairs, especially instructions emanating from Mr. Yeftehe Dimetros, the government’s official responsible for church matters. In January 2005 the Patriarch’s annual Nativity message was not broadcast or televised and the Eritrean Holy Synod met on 6-7 August 2005 with the main purpose of removing all executive authority from the Patriarch. Among accusations brought against the Patriarch, were his reluctance to excommunicate 3,000 members of the Medhane Alem, an Orthodox Sunday School movement, and his demands that the government should release imprisoned Christians accused of treason. He was allowed to officiate at church services, but prohibited from having any administrative role in church affairs. Having deposed the Patriarch, in violation of the church’s constitution and canons, on 27 May 2007 the government installed Bishop Dioscoros of Mendefera as anti-Patriarch. The same day, in the early hours of the morning, Abune Antonios, was forcibly removed from his residence and transported to an undisclosed location, where he was kept under house arrest. The anti-Patriarch Dioscoros subsequently died on 21 December 2015.
On 8 August 2016 the Eritrean Holy Synod published a statement [http://lisantewahdo.org/], couched in eirenic language, announcing that after a long conversation and deep discussion, Abune Antonios willingly performed his fatherly responsibility by admitting each and every mistake which he committed ten years ago when he was patriarch, which were the reasons for his dethronement. It stated that all the above-mentioned were mistakes which he had committed knowingly and unknowingly and he made a heartfelt apology to the Holy Church and the Holy Synod, as well as giving verbal and written confirmation to all the concerned bodies, adding ‘I am apologising with all my heart and willingly to continue in harmony and I confirm that with my official signature.’ The Holy Synod also reports that it has accepted the apology as it is merciful and called Abune Antonios to a meeting with its members to ‘make a heartfelt spiritual act of peace and love, forgiveness and mercy.’ The online report carried three grainy pictures of the Synod in progress and of Abune Antonios embracing fellow bishops.
Whilst we must rejoice at his release from unjust detention – if that is what has now happened – there are a number of aspects in the official statements which give cause for grave concern. The Diaspora Archdiocese of the Eritrean Church (North America, Europe and the Middle East) under His Grace Bishop Makarios, which has faithfully stood by Abune Antonios throughout, and worked for true freedom and unity among Eritrean Christians, has expressed grave doubts as to the circumstances and truth of the Synod’s statement. Indeed, the only mistake made by Abune Antonios was in trusting the other members of the Holy Synod, who unanimously betrayed him and laid false accusations against him. As for ‘apologies’, it should be the Synod and the government who should be apologising to the Patriarch for usurping his authority, overturning canonical order and depriving him of his liberty for a decade. The Diaspora Archdiocese notes that there has been no concrete statement from the Patriarch himself, written or oral, and that no statement of reconciliation can be taken at face value where the venue is not free from any duress and without the participation of a neutral third party. The Synod, with the full backing of the government, cannot be the accusing party, the judge and now, the agent of the so-called ‘reconciliation.’
Other informed bodies have also raised their concerns about these events. Human Rights Concern – Eritrea, “It is not known what pressures have been put upon the elderly Patriarch, in a country where horrific forms of torture are practised (as confirmed by the UN Special Rapporteur and the Commission of Enquiry on the situation of human rights in Eritrea), and indeed, whether any such confession was made under severe duress. Without independent witnesses, and other guarantees of the Patriarch’s free choice to make such a voluntary confession, the news conveyed … cannot be regarded as trustworthy or credible.” The highly respected Christian Solidarity Worldwide have stated, “Credible sources have informed CSW that the delegation had initially visited the Patriarch on 5 August to apologise for their part in his illegal removal and to begin the process of reconciliation. The Patriarch was subsequently transported to the Patriarchate in Asmara on 8 August for further discussions, and the pictures were taken at that time.” The information they have received so far suggests that the report had been fabricated to deflect criticism of Eritrea’s appalling human rights record by providing an illusion of progress. In reality, the continued detention of the legitimate leader of the largest permitted Christian denomination is a clear indication of the government’s obsessive determination to monitor, suppress and control every religious community.
The cynical and ruthless use of the church by the Eritrean government is fully in keeping with its despicable and cruel treatment of its own people, which has caused countless Eritreans to flee from their homeland, which has become for them a living prison. Attempting to use Abune Antonios, a holy man who has already suffered much for his integrity and humanity, in order to gain legitimacy for a compliant Synod, demonstrates the government’s utter contempt for religion and empathy with the plight of its citizens. We commend Abune Antonios and all Eritreans to the mercy and protection of Almighty God.