Eritrean Christians raise concern over continued house arrest of church leader

Enda Mariam Orthodox Cathedral in Asmara, Eritrea | Wikimedia Commons/David Stanley

Eritrean Christians have expressed concern regarding the current status of Patriarch Antonios of the Eritrean Orthodox Church who has been under house arrest since January 2007.

The patriarch's reappearance in public at a church service on 16 July fueled speculations about his imminent release, but the concerns about his freedom were renewed after he failed to deliver the traditional televised Geez New Year blessing on Sept. 11.

According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), the patriarch was not permitted to speak when he appeared at the church service in July, despite being overheard asking for the opportunity to address the congregation. He was quickly ushered off the premises and was reportedly put under house arrest at a new location.

As the demands to hear from the church leader grew, a video showing Antonios speaking to "workers of the patriarchate" was released, along with fresh photographs of the patriarch blessing selected visitors. However, questions arose regarding the manner and terms of his release after he failed to deliver the New Year blessing.

The New Year blessing, which marks the start of the year according to the Julian calendar, was delivered last week by Bishop Lukas, a pro-government cleric who is said to harbor ambitions of being the next patriarch.

CSW's sources have said that the patriarch's failure to deliver the New Year message "is the biggest sign that he is still not restored fully to his position. Under canon law, if a patriarch is around, a bishop should not give the benediction." It was also seen as a further confirmation that he was only allowed to reappear in public to offset international criticism by giving the impression of an improvement in human rights, and to ease the path to succession for Lukas.

"There appears to have been no real change in his circumstances, and, despite being able to receive selected visitors, Abune Antonios is neither truly free nor fully reinstated to his rightful office," said CSW's Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas.

"If he is indeed free, then the Eritrean government must permit the EU Delegation and other members of the international community with a diplomatic presence in Asmara to visit the patriarch and monitor his wellbeing," he added.

Antonios was removed from office after he repeatedly objected to government interference in ecclesiastical affairs. He is just one of thousands of prisoners of conscience in Eritrea; several hundred of whom are Christians.

The Eritrean government had stepped up its crackdown on Christians in May, with over 200 believers detained in remote desert areas, following house to house raids in different cities.

The man behind the persecution, Eritrean President Isaias Afewerki, is a member of the Eritrean Orthodox church, which is among the only three Christian denominations allowed to function in the country. His restrictive policies are said to be more about his fear that religion will mobilize people as a political force than religion per se.

Eritrea is currently ranked on Open Doors USA's 2017 World Watch List as the 10th worst nation in the world when it comes to Christian persecution.