How the Eritrean government attempted to split the Orthodox Church

An authoritative report published in the Orthodox Handbook on Ecumenism describes the government interference and repression against members of Eritrea’s Orthodox church, including Abune Antonios. Full chapter Orthodox Church Eritrea.

A portion is reproduced below.


“Even though the Eritrean Orthodox Church enjoys the status of an officially recognized religious group, it faces a great deal of restrictions. In May 2002, the desire of the Eritrean government to control the oldest and the most influential institution in the country brought the installation of a political appointee as the General Administrator of the Church. This position, similar to that of the Ober-Prokurator of the Russian Orthodox Holy Synod in Tsarist times, has full control over the decisions of the Synod. Besides this, in order to weaken the position of the Church and to reduce its role to a mere arm of the Department of the Religious Affairs, the government either arrested or unfrocked a great number of the leading clergy who could oppose the new course of the government.

Yet this was not all: the finances of the Church fell under the control of the government, 26 the most precious artefacts and manuscripts were declared to be “the property of the Eritrean people” and confiscated. But what makes the religious policy of the government even more dangerous for the future of the Eritrean Orthodox Church is that presently all deacons and priests below the age of fifty are obliged to undergo an indefinite military service. During the last several years, more than 1,500 Orthodox priests were forced to join the army and as a result of the shortage of clergy, Orthodox churches – and first of all in rural areas – are being shut down at an alarming rate in Eritrea.

However the head of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Patriarch Antonios, took an uncompromising stand against all encroachments by the government in the affairs of the Church and demanded the release of the imprisoned Christians. The reaction followed quite soon, and Patriarch Antonios was removed from his office by the Holy Synod which sided with the government. He was soon arrested and became one of around 2,000 Christians detained without trial or charge by the Eritrean government.

Since then, he has neither been seen nor heard from. In order to justify this uncanonical action, representatives of the Synod even sought the support of the Coptic Pope Shenouda III to excommunicate Abune Antonios, but the Pope refrained from this and expressed his support for the persecuted Patriarch.

The religious policy of the Eritrean regime found its anticipated turn on 27 May 2007 when a pro-government bishop Dioscoros of Mendefera was installed as a new Patriarch. Although all other Oriental Orthodox Churches still continue to recognize Abune Antonios as the genuine and canonical patriarch of Eritrean Orthodox Tweahedo Church, the Eritrean Orthodox Community in Diaspora is divided into two groups: one (more numerous) supporting Abune Antonios and the other, Abune Dioscoros.

The severe restriction of religious freedom in Eritrea gained attention all around the world and this situation became a major concern not only for various NGO’s, but also for Churches and ecumenical bodies worldwide. As the matter of fact, General Secretary of the WCC Konrad Raiser accompanied by an ecumenical team visited Eritrea in July 2002 and met there with Church leaders as well as government officials in order to advocate for the believers, whose fundamental human rights of freedom of religion, conscience, worship and organization had been violated.

Intensive work in this direction is being done also by the Eritrean Orthodox Church in Diaspora. Its recent appeal from May 2013 to the Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon could serve as an example of its activity. In this letter the Archdioceses of the Eritrean Orthodox Church in North America, Europe and Middle East once again called upon the world community to help to release His Holiness Patriarch Antonios and all those who are in prison because of their faith.”

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