The Detained Patriarch, Persecuted Christians and a Dying Church of Eritrea

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By George Alexander

This is not just an article; rather I would like to shed some light into the pathetic conditions of Christians in Eritrea, which requires high volume of international attention and help.

As we all know Eritrea is a country situated in the ‘Horn of Africa’, bordered by Sudan in the west, Ethiopia in the south, and Djibouti the southeast. Eritrea is dominated by two major religions, Christianity and Islam. Some approximations state that 50-64 percentage of the population belongs to Christianity.

Christians of Eritrea

The majority of the Christians belong to the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church, which belongs to Oriental Orthodox family. Rest of them comprises of Roman Catholics, Evangelical Lutherans and a number of various protestant denominations. It is reported that only Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church are the only government recognized christen communities. Rest of the religious groups should undergo a government registration to gain freedom of worship by submitting detailed information of their membership and followers.

The Eritrean Orthodox Church

It would be worthwhile mentioning about the Eritrean Orthodox Church, one of the oldest Christian communities in world who traces their origins to the evangelical works of Apostle St. Phillip. It was established as a church through sincere efforts of St. Frumentius in the kingdom of Axumite under King Ezana. He was sent to Alexandria where he was ordained as Barhop in the name Abune Salema by the Coptic Pope and Patriarch St.Athanasius. For several centuries afterward the Coptic Pope appointed a Copt to be the Metropolitan Bishop of Eritrean Church. Eritrea was annexed to Ethiopia after World War II. Since Eritrea was regarded as a province of Ethiopia, the Eritrean church was also considered to be a part of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. Since its declaration of independence from Ethiopia in 1993, the Eritrean church began to appeal to the Coptic patriarch for autocephaly. The Coptic Pope recognized the request and granted autocephaly in 1994 (The Ethiopian Church was granted Autocephaly in 1950’s). Abune Phillipos was consecrated as the first Patriarch of Eritrean Orthodox Church only in the year 1998. There was initial objection from the Ethiopian Church but later they recognized the autocephaly of the Eritrean Orthodox Church. Abune Yacob was the second Patriarch of the Church who ruled for very short period of time; to be more specific hardly one year (2002-2003). After his demise the holy synod of the Eritrean Orthodox church elected Abune Antonios as the third Patriarch of Eritrea in the year 2004.

The Eritrean Orthodox Church belongs to the ancient Oriental Orthodox family along with the Coptic, Syrian, Armenian, Indian and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches.

The Eritrean Orthodox Biblical canon contains 81 books which are accept by The Narrower Canon which include Enoch, Jubilees, and three books of the Meqabyan and also they have the broader cannon which comprises of all books in narrow cannon and also two Books of the Covenant, Four Books of Sinodos, a Book of Clement, and Didascalia. Broader Canon has not been in print since the beginning of the Twentieth Century. The Haile Selassie Version of the Bible which was published in 1962, which contains the Narrower Canon.The Divine Liturgy of the Eriteran Church is served in Ge’ez language.The Septuagint version of the holy Bible was translated into Ge’ez and the Sermons are delivered in the local language.

The Detained Patriarch

Abune Antonios was was unanimously elected Patriarch by the Holy Synod on 5 March 2004 and he was enthroned as the third Patriarch of Eritrea on 24th April 2004 by the most holy hands of Pope Shenouda III, assisted by Eritrean and Coptic Orthodox Metropolitans and Bishops.

Patriarch Antonios is well known for his hard work, leadership and religious devotion. He has made tremendous contributions in reconstructing the all around standards of the monasteries in Eritrea while serving as an Abbot. He has been much open to modern technology, medicine and education and he is always cherished by thousands of people for his love, generosity and theological scholarship.

As the Patriarch of Eretria, he was much concerned and resisted the growing interference of government in religious affairs. His strong resistance of to excommunicate three thousand members of the Medhane Alem, an Orthodox Sunday School movement as well as his demands that the government should release imprisoned Christians accused of treason are considered to be some reason for his rivalry with the Eritrean government. The Holy Synod sided with the government and during January 2005 a secret session was met and they removed all executive authority of the patriarch who was limited to just officiating church services. The Holy Synod sought the support of Pope Shenouda to excommunicate Abune Antonios, but the Pope refrained from such an act.

A secret session of the Holy Synod in January 2006 at Asmara formally removed Patriarch from his office and on 20th January. Two priests accompanied by security persons of the Government the Patriarch’s residence and confiscated his personal pontifical insignia. Violating the church cannons and constitution the government installed Bishop Dioscoros of Mendefera as the anti-patriarch on 27th May 2007. Abune Antonios on the same day was forced to move out of his office and has been detained at an undisclosed location somewhere in the capital city of Asmara. It is reported that the Patriarch is being held in darkened room that is all what is known so far.

Abune Antonios was isolated and detained as a result of Governments master plan to tear out the uncompromising and courageous stand of the Patriarch against the unwanted involvement of government mechanisms in religious affairs. The government made this possible by arresting and defrocking large number of capable and leading clergy in the Orthodox Church as well as tactfully submitting Holy Synod members to the government plan. The Patriarch never acted a puppet of the government; rather he stood for peace and justice. Hence he was crucified and is believed to be still alive and so the Patriarch as an example of the true living Martyr of our Lord God, Jesus Christ.

It is to be noted that none of the Orthodox Churches, the Roman Catholic Church and

Christian denominations have not recognized the government installed Patriarch Abune Dioscoros till date. Abune Antonios is recognized as the genuine and canonical patriarch of Eritrean Orthodox Church.

The Eritrean government claims that Patriarch Abune Antoniso has voluntarily retired to one of the interior isolated monasteries and is very active in prayers. Despite of their claim, the Eritrean government has failed to produce any update on the conditions of the patriarch.

There are Eritrean Orthodox communities outside Eritrea especially in USA and UK who are served by two Bishops namely Abune Markarios (Bishop of the Eritrean Church in the USA and Abune Markos (Bishop of the Eritrean Church in the UK) who are also members of the Coptic Holy Synod. Also there are Eritrean communities in different parts of the world especially in Jerusalem, the Holy Land.

Persecution of Christians

Reports say that Christians and Christian churches are severely persecuted in Eritrea. Reports states that Christians who are trying to flee the persecutions are facing threat, torture, beating sexual assault and imprisonment. Many of the Christians are fleeing the land to neighboring countries. It is estimated that there are more between 2000 and 3000 Christians in Eritrean prisons. According to reports, Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians are attacked in large numbers. Many people seeking refuges in Egypt get killed by human traffickers and many others are being held captive in Sinai desert. The refuges are heavily tortured both physically and mentally. Many people held in prison face death due to torture and lack of medical aid. The official sources of the Eritrean government deny any sort of assaults on Christians which has been proved to be wrong in all manners.

Persecution of Orthodox Church in Eritrea

Despite one of the official recognized and largest Christian community of Eretria, the Orthodox Church is haunted by the government machineries. As per the ICFC report, Orthodox Churches in Eritrea is being shut down at an alarming rate. Since 2005 more 1500 Orthodox priest and deacons have been forced into serve in military. During past four years the Orthodox Church has been reduced as a mere arm of the department of the religious affairs. The historical and ancient artifacts of the Orthodox Church have been removed from churches and monasteries and have been confiscated by the government. Even though many churches are available in city areas, large number of Orthodox Churches in rural Eritrea has closed their doors, especially due to the shortage of clergy. It is the purposeful plan of the government to create shortage of Orthodox priests and deacons by forcing them to serve in military as soldiers. The government is presently forcing all Orthodox deacons and priests below the age of fifty years to interminably serve in military, thus depriving the church completely without clergy. It is estimated that more 1500 Orthodox Churches will be shut down in near future. Some examples for the closed churches are St. George Orthodox Church in Aligider, Gelila Mariam Orthodox Church in Shambuka, Medhane Alem Demas Orthodox Church near Ginda’E, St. Michael MeHrad Lam near Qnafna, an Orthodox Church in Adi-Itay in the area of Mendefera and St.Gabriel Egela Orthodox Church near Teseney.

Metropolitan Abba Seraphim: The Sole Fighter

Abba Seraphim Metropolitan of Glastonbury, Primate of the British Orthodox Church within the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate has been toiling for past several years to gain the much needed international attention and help for the prosecuted Christians of Eritrea as well as to restore Abune Antoios back to his throne. The Metropolitan leads prayer vigil for prosecuted Christians of Eritrean every year especially at the Eritrean embassy in UK. More here:

Plea for Help

Though the sad plight of Christians in Eritrea is being discussed at various levels, the right kind of attention and help is not reaching them. This is a slow poisoning process of Christians and if not intervened in the appropriate manner, the result will be nothing but the complete disintegration Christianity in Eretria.

There has been continuous plea for help from the suffering Christian communities in Eritrea. Many countries in the west especially USA has been pressing the Eritrean government to protect human rights and restore religious freedom. But any kind of international pressure seems to fall on deaf ears.

As an ordinary Christian who enjoy immense religious freedom in my country, I pray for a great miracle in Eritrea and also request each one of you of to pray for the suffering Christians. Let us stand united to speak and act for our brothers and sisters in Eretria. May the Almighty have mercy on his children in Eritrea.

Courtesy: Pakistan Christian Post