Catholic Entity Mourns Death of Eritrean Christian Leader after Prolonged Captivity

Late Abune Antonios, Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church Tawaedo. Credit: ACN

Catholic Pontifical and charity foundation, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), has joined other Christian entities in mourning the passing on of a renowned Eritrean Christian leader who has been held captive by the country’s authorities since his arrest in 2007.

Abune Antonios, Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church Tawaedo, died on February 9, at his residence in the country's capital, Asmara, where he had been under house arrest for close to 15 years.

In a Thursday, February 17 report by ACN Portugal, Neville Kyrke-Smith, Director of the British Secretariat of the ACN Foundation, expresses sadness at the Christian leader’s death, saying “Christians in Eritrea have lost a remarkable leader who stood up for religious freedom in the face of government aggression and intimidation.”

Neville reiterated the commitment of support to the Eritrean Christian community that is mourning “the loss of a great figure of their church.”

The director of the ACN Foundation’s British Secretariat also stressed the importance of Patriarch Antonio’s “witness of peaceful resistance against government oppression,” which he said the world should look to as an example.


He said that all Christians who are in prison both in Eritrea and elsewhere because of their faith will not be forgotten.

Patriarch Antonios’ body was reportedly taken to the Abune Andreas monastery, to which he belonged; he was buried at the monastery on February 10.

Local sources told human rights foundation, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), that a large crowd gathered at his burial site, many of whom had traveled long distances on foot.

The UK-based human rights foundation reports that Patriarch Antonios was removed from office for resisting the Eritrean government’s repeated interference in church affairs.

“Most notably, he had refused to expel 3,000 members of the Orthodox renewal movement, Medhane Alem, protested the detention in November 2004 of three priests from the renewal movement, and objected to the imposition of Yoftahe Demitros, a pro-government lay person, as its general secretary,” CSW reports.

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In August 2005, Patriarch Antonios was removed from administrative control of the Patriarchate, confined to ceremonial duties, and eventually deposed in January 2006 following secret meetings of the Holy Synod that were convened in contravention of church canon, CSW reports.

According to the Christian human rights entity, the patriarch remained under de facto arrest in his official residence until the early hours of 7 May 2007, when his personal pontifical insignia and clothing were seized, and he was officially placed under house arrest in an undisclosed location in the Eritrean capital, Asmara.

Months later, he was “illegally” replaced by Bishop Dioscoros, a clergyman approved of by the Eritrean government, but who remained unrecognized by the Orthodox papacy in Egypt until his death in 2015.

Patriarch Antonios issued a strong response to the letter notifying him of his removal from office in which he excommunicated both lay and clerical individuals who had gathered illegally in the Holy Synod, declaring, “There is one thing that you need to be reminded of: No one can be above the law. Whoever tries to trample the law underfoot will himself end up being trampled over by the law.”

The nonagenarian patriarch was not seen in public again until a tightly-managed appearance at St Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral in Asmara in July 2017, CSW reports, and adds, “He later disappeared from public view once again after insisting on the public revocation of the accusations leveled against him as an assurance of genuine reconciliation.”


The patriarch’s conditions of house arrest, which had been somewhat eased, are said to have become more stringent.

CSW’s team of specialist advocates reports that Patriarch Antonios was only seen in smuggled videos “in which he continued to fearlessly criticize the conditions and grounds of his detention.”

In July 2019, and in seeming retaliation to one of these videos, five pro-government bishops are said to have signed a statement accusing Antonios of having committed heresy, stripping him of all official authority and effectively excommunicating him.

He is said to have responded defiantly, saying of his attackers, “The Eritrean Synod are the accusers and adjudicators, without listening to my side. They broke the law of the Eritrean Orthodox Church.”

According to CSW, patriarch Antonios’ removal and mistreatment opened a deep schism in the denomination that is “likely to be exacerbated by his death in custody.”

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“Many Orthodox adherents and clergy continued to support him, both in Eritrea and in the diaspora,” the Christian human rights entity reports.

On 13 May 2021, the Eritrean government confirmed a second replacement, announcing that “His Reverend Abune Qerlos” had been elected the fifth patriarch and would be consecrated on June 13.

CSW’s team of specialist advocates reports that the Abune Andreas monastery was among many Orthodox sources and adherents who refused to accept him.

In a February 10 report, CSW’s Founder President Mervyn Thomas described Abune Antonios as “a deeply principled man who prioritized his calling over the politicization of the Church by a regime deemed to have committed crimes against humanity since 1991.”

“Despite 16 years of unremitting pressure, mistreatment, and defamation, the patriarch never compromised, even when it could have led to his reinstatement. He chose instead to protect the integrity and doctrine of the Church with which he had been entrusted, at the cost of freedom and comfort in his twilight years,” Mr. Mervyn said.

The CSW official called on the international community to honor Patriarch Antonios’ courageous stand for freedom of religion by regalvanizing efforts to secure the release of thousands of people who remain detained in Eritrea on account of conscience, religion or belief.

Catholic Pontifical foundation, ACN, had particularly rallied for the release of the Eritrean Patriarch, having featured his woes in a 2020 “Free the Prisoners” campaign.

In a report that was produced by ACN Foundation in support of the “Free the Prisoners” campaign, the leadership of the foundation stated that the Patriarch, then already 93 years old, was being held “in isolation” in a church building, “with no visitors, including family members.”

The authorities were also not allowing Abune Antonios to receive medical care, despite the fact that he suffered “severely from diabetes” and “high blood pressure.”

ACN has described Eritrea as a country where, despite legal guarantees written into the Constitution, “the authoritarian government does not allow freedom of religious belief.”

The Catholic charity foundation states that Eritrea is one of the countries that suffers “one of the worst records of religious freedom” in the whole world.

Authorities in Eritrea refuse the people “their civil and political rights and, as a consequence, thousands are trying to emigrate,” ACN has said.

“With repression and arbitrary detention of members of unrecognized religious groups and increasing restrictions on authorized groups, as exemplified by the recent closure of Catholic schools and health centers, the situation of religious freedom is dire and does not seem likely to improve in the near future,” the ACN foundation reported.

Agnes Aineah is a Kenyan journalist with a background in digital and newspaper reporting. She holds a Master of Arts in Digital Journalism from the Aga Khan University, Graduate School of Media and Communications and a Bachelor's Degree in Linguistics, Media and Communications from Kenya's Moi University. Agnes currently serves as a journalist for ACI Africa.