The Deposing of Patriarch Antonios Print
Wednesday, 19 October 2011 23:08

Eritrea is a small country of nearly 4 million people located in north-east Africa. It comprises of fairly equal number of Muslims and Christians. Eritrea attained its independence in 1991 following one of Africa’s longest and bloodiest wars with Ethiopia, its neighbor to the south. The country’s independence was legitimized following a referendum in 1993, conducted under the auspices of the United Nations. Over 98% of its people voted for independence.


The country showed great promise in the first few years of its existence as an independent nation. Then another devastating war broke with Ethiopia in 1998-2000 due to disputes related to their boundary. Eritrea’s strongman, Isaias Afewerki, has since turned into a ruthless dictator. When senior government officials and parliamentarians raised issues that had to do with the implementation of the constitution that was ratified in 1997 and a return to the democratization process that had been underway before the start of the war in 1998, they were all rounded up in September 2001and thrown in an undisclosed prison, never to be heard from again. Soon after, the government banned all private newspapers and arrested over a dozen journalists. When university students protested, the only university in the country was shut down. The government then turned the entire society into a large and highly regimented military garrison. All young men and women of military age (18-45) are as a consequence tied up in what the government calls national service. This forced military conscription has turned into an interminable and much despised servitude.


On May 17, 2002  Mr. Isaias Afewerki,  the leader of Eritrea, who had formerly been an avowed Marxist, banned all but the four main religious institutions in the country, namely, Islam, the Eritrean Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the smaller Lutheran community. The leaders of the churches that were banned, mainly evangelical, were soon hunted down along with their members. Today, according to Amnesty International and the most recent report of the U.S. Department of State, over 2000 Christians are languishing in jails, prisons, and detention centers all over the country for their religious belief.


The so-called “recognized” religious institutions have not escaped persecution either. Of the four, the Eritrean Orthodox Church has of late suffered the most devastation. Taking advantage of the inherent weaknesses of this large and historic church, the government of Mr. Afewerki has undertaken an elaborate program for complete control of the church. The first action he took to this end was the installing of a political appointee, the notorious hatchet-man Yoftahe Dimetros, as the highest administrator of the church. The Synod of the Eritrean Orthodox Church was subsequently rendered subservient to the dictates of this man. What followed was the sweeping arrest of leading clergymen, the firing of many others from their clerical responsibilities, and intimidation of the rest.


His Holiness Abune Antonios, the third Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, soon found himself on a collision course with the government of Eritrea and Yoftahe Dimetros. He voiced opposition to any government interference in the church, the imprisonment of prominent clergymen, and the closing of churches. He took an uncompromising and principled stand to maintain the integrity and independence of the church.


In the eyes of the totalitarian regime, such defiance is never tolerated. Dimetros who, on behalf of the government has managed to wrest complete control of the church through intimidation, and with the acquiescence of bishops, decided to orchestrate the gradual, even if illegal, de-enthronement of the Patriarch. In January 2005 he sent out a circular letter to all the dioceses of the church that Patriarch Antonios was relieved of the day to day administrative responsibilities of the church. As a prelude to a total purge of any potential opponents within the church, the Prelate was put under a stringent house-arrest. He was denied all access to visitors. His telephone line was disconnected. The isolation to which he was subjected was so severe that even physicians could not attend to him for the treatment of his diabetes.


Dimetros then began the grooming of a pliable bishop to the patriarchate in spite of the canon and church rules which clearly prohibit the appointment of another patriarch while the properly installed patriarch is still alive. At the end of April 2007, the government announced that one bishop Dioscoros was “chosen” to become a replacement patriarch. On May 27, 2004 in a nationally televised charade Abba Dioscoros was installed.


The Coptic Church of Egypt, the mother of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, went through somewhat similar experience in 1980 when President Sadat exiled the venerated Pope and Patriarch of the See of St. Mark, Shenouda III, to a distant monastery. During the period of his exile, Sadat and the press referred to him as the ex-Pope. The pontiff’s exile was revoked by President Mubarak in 1985. During his period of exile, Pope Shenouda III was named prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. Similarly, Amnesty International has called Patriarch Antonios a prisoner of conscience in April 2007, and called for his immediate release. But instead, on the morning after the illegal installation of Abba Dioscoros to the seat of the patriarchate, His Holiness Abune Antonios was awakened by security officials of the government and evicted out of his patriarchal residence.


With the above state of affairs to which the Eritrean Orthodox Church has fallen, it has finalized its slippery slide into a pariah church within a pariah state, isolated from the rest of Christendom and under the complete control of one of the most tyrannical regimes of our time. The aged patriarch Abune Antonios, now 81 years old, has become immortalized in the eyes of his people - Christians or otherwise - for standing up against tyranny. The Eritrean people will forever be indebted to him for the courage he has shown and the price he has been willing to pay in defense of his most beloved church.


Abba Haileyesus Oqbai

03/22/2008