Death of Abune Antonios, Patriarch of Eritrea

Abune Antonios, the third Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church  died on 9 February 2022 at  Asmara, Eritrea, at the age of 94

Abune Antonios was born on 12 July 1927 in the town of Hembrti, in the province of Hamasien. He was ordained priest in 1942, and later elected as Abbot of the Debre Tsege Abuna Endrias monastery in 1955. When Eritrea gained its independence from Ethiopia in 1993 the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church was granted autocephaly by Pope Shenouda III, Patriarch of Alexandria of the Coptic Orthodox Church, and Antonios was one of the five abbots of Eritrean monasteries who went to Egypt to be ordained as bishops so that their church would have its own Holy Synod. He was consecrated as Bishop Antonios of Hamasien-Asmara on the Feast of Pentecost, 19 June 1994, in Saint Mark’s Coptic Orthodox Cathedral, Cairo, by Pope Shenouda III, on the same day that Abba Seraphim was ordained as a Metropolitan by Pope Shenouda.

The first Patriarch of Eritrea was Abune Phillipos (1901-2002), who was appointed by Pope Shenouda on 7 May 1999 but was succeeded by Abune Yacob. The pontificate of Abune Yacob (1924-2003) as second Patriarch of Eritrea was very brief, as he died not long after his enthronement, and he was then succeeded by Abune Antonios as the third Patriarch of Eritrea. Abune Antonios was elected on 5 March 2004, and enthroned as the third Patriarch of the Orthodox Tewahedo Church of Eritrea on 24 April 2004. Pope Shenouda III presided at the ceremony in Asmara, together with the Holy Synod of the Eritrean Orthodox Church and a Coptic Orthodox Church delegation.

He was illegally and forcefully deposed by the Eritrean government in 2006, and was placed under house arrest thereafter.

In August 2005, Abune Antonios, the Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, was confined to a strictly ceremonial röle. In a letter dated 13 January 2006 Abune Antonios was informed that following several sessions of the church’s Holy Synod, he had been formally deposed. In a written response that was widely published, the Patriarch rejected the grounds of his dismissal, questioned the legitimacy of the synod, and excommunicated two signatories of the 13 January 2006 letter, including Yoftahe Dimetros, whom the Patriarch identified as being responsible for the church’s recent upheavals. Patriarch Antonios also appealed his case to the Council of the Monasteries of the Eritrean Orthodox Church and to the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria. Abune Antonios was deposed by the Eritrean Holy Synod supposedly under pressure from the Eritrean government led by President Isais Afwerki. The religious freedom situation in Eritrea under the régime of President Afwerki was extremely grave, with an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 religious prisoners and reports of torture and other inhumane treatment of religious prisoners. The government dominated the internal affairs of the Orthodox Church of Eritrea, which was the country’s largest Christian denomination, and also suppressed Muslim religious activities and groups.

In 2006 Abune Antonios was placed under house arrest and strict surveillance and held without charge and on 27 May 2007 the government wrongly deposed him in violation of the church’s constitution and canons and on 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, but he protested government interference in his church’s affairs. Abuna Antonios was replaced by  Bishop Dioskoros of Mendefera as the 4th Patriarch of the church, who eventually died on 21 December 2015. Charges were brought against him by Yeftehe Dimetros, a layman appointed by the government as administrator of the Orthodox Church.

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 röle in church affairs.
He continued to be held under duress, with state agents ensuring that he could not leave the premises. There has never been an opportunity for him to question and challenge this illegal detention in a court of law. He was detained arbitrarily and without charge or trial, solely at the whim of the Eritrean President and ruling clique in government.  He was being held virtually incommunicado, and was deprived of all contact with clergy and friends.

Since 2007 Abune Antonios had been considered by the USA to be a religious prisoner of conscience. His removal at the behest of the Eritrean government was denounced by the other Oriental Orthodox Churches, who refused to recognize Abune Dioskoros as Patriarch of Eritrea. In July 2019, in an unprecedented move, bishops of the Holy Synod of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church excommunicated Abune Antonios for heresy. The letter from five of the six most senior Eritrean bishops declared that “His name should never be mentioned and remembered and those who do so will be punished severely.” Although the Patriarch was expelled from being a member of the church, the bishops promised he could still live in a church building. The president of the Standing Conference of Oriental Orthodox Churches condemned his excommunication.

Following his deposition Abba Seraphim frequently joined an annual Protest outside the Eritrean Embassy in Islington, London.

The protesters took up their position on the pavement opposite the embassy and represented a wide rank of Christian denominations as well as of several human rights groups (Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Release International, Release Eritrea, Church on Chains, Human Rights Concern Eritrea) who came together to pray for the persecuted Christians of Eritrea and their government. A large number of the banners portrayed His Holiness Abune Antonios, the imprisoned Patriarch of Eritrea. Abba Seraphim was joined by the Anglican Bishop of Southwark (The Right Rev’d Christopher Chessum), Father Yonas Tesheme (Sheffield) and Deacon Joannes Gebrehiwet (Manchester) with a number of other deacons representing the Eritrean Orthodox Diocese of Europe. Speakers and Prayers were led by Abba Seraphim, Andy Dipper (Release International), Dr. Berhane Ashmelesh (Release Eritrea), David Turner (Church in Chains), Elsa Chyrum (Human Rights Concern Eritrea), Selam Kidane (Release Eritrea), Dr. Khataza Gondwe (CSW). At the end of the protest a  letter was signed on behalf of the whole group by Abba Seraphim and Bishop Christopher and was delivered to the Eritrean Ambassador.