13 February 2022
By Elizabeth Chyrum
The Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Abune Antonios, has died in Asmara on 9th February 2022, aged 94. He was buried on 10th February 2022, at 9: 00a.m local time, in the grounds of his monastery, Debre Abune Andreas, the largest monastery in the Safe region.
His Holiness Abune Antonios was born in July 1927, in the village of Hemberti in Hamasien, Eritrea. His father was a priest.
When he reached the age of five years, he was sent for study to the Debre Abune Andreas Monastery. In the monastery Abune Andreas studied the fundamentals of prayers, religious rites and religious rituals. Given the religious name of “Aba Yemane Berhan”, he was made a deacon when he was 12 by His Holiness Abune Markos. After serving at several levels in the Debre Abune Andreas monastery and completing the necessary intensive theological education, he dutifully responded to his call to become a monk at the shrine of Debre Tsegie, in Abune Andreas Monastery, and subsequently received the distinction of being anointed to the position of a member of the Orthodox Church clergy in 1942.
After dutifully serving the monastery and the church with diligence, hard work and humility, Aba Yemane Berhan was selected for the fellowship and faculty membership of the shrine of Debre Tsegie and granted the honour of Distinguished Master, to be a chief educator of the monastery.He was elected Abbot in 1955.
During this period, he led an exemplary life and proved a strong leader. He strove to improve and to reform the way of life and education in the monastery for residents and showed his deep personal faith and religious responsibility by caring for and encouraging people who suffered from leprosy, depression and other ailments. Many fellow monks, church scholars and former students still remember his immense contribution to the development and expansion of the monastery.
He was adored and admired for his religious devotion, scholastic enthusiasm, and independence of mind. Above all, he was outstandingly unique from other traditional church leaders of the Tewahdo Church in his openness to new ideas in education, technology and medicine. Particularly notable was his immensely devout, polite, and thoughtful respect for young people. Many Sunday School students in Asmara described him as gracious, considerate, gentle, friendly and sociable.
It was these proven character-traits and his love of people and respect for others that led the church leaders to select him for promotion. When the Eritrean Orthodox Tewhado Church first sought its independence, he was one of the five abbots of monasteries sent to Egypt to be ordained bishop so that the church would have its own Holy Synod.
He was ordained as Bishop Antonios of Hamasien-Asmara, by His Holiness Shenouda III, Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria on 19 June 1994 in St. Mark’s Cathedral, Cairo. Following this, he was appointed to be the Abune – Chief Bishop of Asmara and the central region in 1998.
In 2003, following the death of Abune Yacoub, the second Patriarch of the Eritrean Church, Abune Antonios was elected Patriarch in popular elections which were unanimously endorsed by the Holy Synod. His ordination by Pope Shenouda III and enthronement as Patriarch took place on 23 April 2004 in Asmara.
As Patriarch and leader of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, Abune Antonios showed strong character and courage. He was not intimidated by criticism. His conscience would not allow him to accept government edicts which contradicted his calling, his deep and abiding personal faith, and the doctrine of the Tewahdo Orthodox Church. He would not disregard Christ’s word and his divine authority by allowing crucial decisions about church matters to be made by political leaders who demanded complete authority over his church. He would not stand idly by whilst political demands and actions interfered in church affairs, such as the appointment of non-clergy government official to manage his church, closing of Sunday schools, imprisoning priests and closing churches. His objections made him many enemies in the unelected government of President Isaias Afwerki, who determined that he should be silenced and replaced.
Since being removed from his position as a Patriarch, the government has replaced him with two “yes”-men who were totally compliant with government edicts. One of them died, and the second one is serving. But these substitutes have not been accepted by the great majority of the clergy or the lay membership of the church. However, no one can object openly to the ‘government-arranged’ anointing by synod or supposedly “legal” approval processes of the Orthodox church.
From January 2006, Patriarch Antonios endured the experience of continued house arrest for 16 years, in the Eritrean capital, Asmara. He continued to be held under house arrest and under duress, with state agents ensuring that he did not receive any messages from the people of the country and his diaspora followers. He was treated as a criminal, was not allowed to go to church or leave the premises. He was deprived of contact with priests, clergy and friends, being held virtually “incommunicado”.
There was never an opportunity for him to question and challenge this totally 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.
His imprisonment since January 2006 made him one of the longest serving victims and prisoner of conscience of the Eritrean regime. His courage in resisting calls by the regime to submit his church to total governmental control made him the victim of prolonged persecution and enforced silencing within his own country, a detention not recognised or accepted by the true church.
Abune Antonios will be remembered as a man of principle, and, above all, for his courage and persistence in the face of government-imposed persecution and prolonged adversity. As a state-compliant Patriarch, he could have led a quiet life undisturbed by the government, had he not stood up for justice and truth. But his personal faith was too important, his love for his suffering people too great, and his regard for eternal truth too heartfelt, for him to give in to bullying and what must have seemed endless years of “political persuasion”.
The Eritrean people will not forget this fine man of deep resolution with an unwaveringly true moral compass. His life will continue to shine as an example to all his suffering compatriots and to people who respect truth and justice across the world.
May he rest in eternal peace!
Human Rights Concern – Eritrea (HRCE)
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