Israel: Major Brawl among members of the Orthodox Church of Eritrea

BBC Tigrinya

A week ago BBC Tigrinya reported that Eritrean clergymen and deacons were injured during punch-up that took place among the politically divided congregation of the Orthodox Church in Israel. 

Tel Aviv

Worshipers in Tel Aviv, Israel

According to the report, three people who entered church grounds of St Mary and attacked deacon Alazar Ghebrehiwet with a knife are under police custody now. Footage of the assault was circulated in social media creating a major discussion among Eritreans in Israel. 

According to BBC-Tig, the brawl is to do with the case of Bishop Antonios, the third Eritrean patriarch, who has been unjustly put under house arrest by the government since 2006. 

There are four Orthodox churches in Israel that provide services for members of the Eritrean community.  The four churches are politically divided into two groups – two churches adhere to dictates of Bishop Lukas, the current administrator / the effective leader of Eritrea’s Orthodox Church who, more or less, has somehow appropriated the blessing of the government.  The other two churches openly campaign for the release of Bishop Antonios.  

Abune Antonios was elected on 5 March 2004, and enthroned as the third Patriarch of 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.

Bishop Antonios was known for speaking out against the role the Eritrean government has been playing within the Orthodox Church for a long time.  He did not allow the government to interfere in ecclesiastical affairs and encroach on the church’s independence. Basically, the bishop opposed the systematic takeover of the Orthodox Church by the government. 

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The 90 year-old patriarch has been under house arrest since January 2006.  He was replaced by Abune Dioskoros soon after his dethronement.  Abune Dioskoros became the fourth patriarch with the help of the Eritrean government.

The removal of Bishop Antonio at the behest of the Eritrean government was denounced by the other Oriental Orthodox Churches.  It is to be remembered that the Coptic Pope Shenouda III of Alexandria and the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church refused to recognize Abune Dioskoros as Patriarch of Eritrea. 

In 2015, Abune Dioskoros passed away; and the church has been without a patriarch since.  Bishop Lukas has emerged as the caretaker of the church since 2015. 

In July 2019, in an unprecedented move, bishops of the Holy Synod of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, led by Bishop Lukas, excommunicated Abune Antonios for heresy.  The president of the Standing Conference of Oriental Orthodox Churches condemned the excommunication.

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Eritrea is the most restrictive country in the world when it comes to religious freedom.  The Orthodox Church, the church with the largest number of followers in Eritrea, is divided between parishioners seeking justice for Abune Antonios and those who support the likes of Bishop Lukas who are leaning on the regime for support.

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