“We are aware that this decision has not been accepted by the majority of the Eritrean Orthodox clergy or faithful and that, to our knowledge, the excommunication was carried out by government fiat without a formal ecclesiastical trial at which His Holiness might offer a defense against the charges offered. We urge you to reconsider this decision and to conduct all matters related to the Church in accordance with the ancient canons common to us all which dictate that a Patriarch cannot be removed without a formal ecclesiastical trial and not merely at the behest of a secular ruler.”
Source: Eritrea Digest
SCOOCH: Rescind Decision To Excommunicate Patriarch Antonios
The Standing Conference of the Oriental Orthodox Church (scooch) expressed its concern and sadness at the decision of “what remains of the Holy Synod of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church” to declare Patriarch Antonios a heretic and to excommunicate him.
This decision, which the Conference describes as carried out “at the behest of the Eritrean Government” should be reversed and the Patriarch restored because his excommunication was “without a formal ecclesiastical trial at which His Holiness might offer a defense against the charges offered.”
The statement was made in a letter the Conference addressed to “All of the Bishops, Priests, and Faithful of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church.”
The Oriental Orthodox Church includes the Orthodox Churches of Eritrea, Ethiopia, Egypt, Syria, Armenia and India and estimated to have 60-70 million members.
Although the letter was signed by all the standing conference members, including Ethiopia, over a month ago, it was not publicized or issued as news: it was simply filed in the scooch website.
The reason for this is unclear.
Eritrea’s Patriarch Antonios was arrested in 2006 for refusing to excommunicate Orthodox Tewahdo members at the behest of the Eritrean Government. In retaliation, the government ordered the Synod to depose of him, which it did, and then he served 13 years under house arrest.
Two years ago, the government, facing intense criticism from human rights institutions, relaxed the terms of his arrest by allowing him visitors. But it continued to maintained that this was an intra-church dispute that had nothing to do with it. Nonetheless, in anticipation of its joining the Human Rights Council, it allowed him to have visitors for the first time.
Earlier this year, one of the visitors interviewed him, on video, about the conditions that led to his arrest and the Patriarch was unsparing in his criticism of the Synod which, in violation of Church laws and traditions, deposed him for, among other reasons, his refusal to allow a government-appointed layperson, Yiftahe Demetros, oversee the day-to-day activities of the Church.
Shortly after the video was publicized, on July 17, the Synod issued a strongly-worded letter declaring him a heretic and excommunicating him from the Church. The communique, which was signed by 5 of the 6 archbishops which make up the Holy Synod, threatened severe punishment for anyone who utters Patriarch Antonios name.
The government-directed punishment of Patriarch Antonios appears to be one of a series waged at almost every religious institution in Eritrea since it came to power:
- The 1994* arrest/disappearance of Muslim teachers and Sheiks,
- The 1994 denial of citizenship to Eritrean Jehovah Witnesses for refusing to participate in National Referendum or mandatory military service,
- The 2002 decision to require, and then ignore, registration forms from churches collectively known as Pentecostals or, derisively, “Pente” (Mehrete Yesus Presbyterian Church, Faith Mission Church, Seventh-day Adventists, Kalehiwot, Full Gospel, Mesert Cristos, Tinsai, Philadelphia, Rhema Church) and Baha’i;
- The 2017 decision to confiscate the private school of Muslim community in Asmara;
- The 2019 decision to confiscate all health centers of the Catholic Church of Eritrea.
Due to the Government’s heavy interruption in the affairs of religious institutions, all of the “minor” Christian faiths collectively called as “Pentecostals” must worship in secret risking frequent arrest and torture and most of the “major” ones either have no Mufti or Patriarch and/or their properties and endowments have been confiscated.
While SCOOCH in general and the Ethiopian Tewahdo Church in particular have chosen to use a low-key approach, the United States has taken a different path. In mid-July, Eritrea’s Patriarch Antonios was one of four victims of global government restriction of religious freedom that was highlighted in US Vice President Mike Pence’s speech at the 2nd Annual Religious Freedom Ministerial.
July 23, 2019
To All of the Bishops, Priests, and Faithful of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church –
On June 17, 2016 His Eminence Archbishop Khajag Barsamian, my predecessor in the Presidency of the Standing Conference of Oriental Orthodox Churches (SCOOCH), wrote to you expressing our condolences on the repose of His Eminence Abba Dioskoros and our fervent hope that you would refrain from any action that would perpetuate schism in the Oriental Orthodox Church and return His Holiness Abune Antonios I to his Apostolic Throne. Roughly a year later – on June 12, 2017 – Archbishop Khajag again wrote to you reiterating our unwavering support for His Holiness Abune Antonios and our prayers that you would act to end the painful schism that continues to bedevil the Church by restoring him to his rightful place as Patriarch.
In that same spirit, we were greatly concerned and saddened to learn that what remains of the Holy Synod of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church has decided to excommunicate His Holiness Abune Antonios I as a heretic at the behest of the Eritrean government and the secular authorities that it has appointed to oversee the Church. We are aware that this decision has not been accepted by the majority of the Eritrean Orthodox clergy or faithful and that, to our knowledge, the excommunication was carried out by government fiat without a formal ecclesiastical trial at which His Holiness might offer a defense against the charges offered. We urge you to reconsider this decision and to conduct all matters related to the Church in accordance with the ancient canons common to us all which dictate that a Patriarch cannot be removed without a formal ecclesiastical trial and not merely at the behest of a secular ruler. Kindly consider the repercussions that your actions have for the entire Church.
With Love in Our Savior Jesus Christ and on behalf of the Standing Conference of Oriental Orthodox Churches,
President of the Standing Conference of Oriental Orthodox Churches of America
Bishop, Coptic Orthodox Diocese of New York & New England
Acting Patriarchal Exarch, Coptic Orthodox Archdiocese of North America