The death of Patriarch Antonios of the Eritrean Orthodox Church has been announced by human rights activists in the diaspora.
Patriarch Antonios died on Wednesday, 9 February, in his home, in Asmara, where he had been under house arrest for the past 15 years. He was 94 years old.
His death highlights the dire lack of religious freedom in a country that struggles under the dictatorship of Isaias Afwerki.
Elected the third Patriarch of the EOC in 2004, Antonios soon found himself on the wrong side of the Afwerki regime, after criticising attempted state interference in Church matters and the arrest of priests who stood up against human rights abuses.
Two months after demanding that the government cease its interference, he was placed under house arrest, where he remained until his death, 15 years later.
During the time he was imprisoned, the Government staged the election of successors, who are not recognised as legitimate by other churches, or by many Eritrean faithful.
The Human Rights Council – Eritrea, based in London, describes Antonios as “a courageous and conscientious man, a religious leader of the highest calibre, never afraid to take a stand for the true and genuine Christian faith”, and expresses its concern that with his death “the Church will be very vulnerable to state interference and the government appointed yes-men will not defend its religious independence”.
Religion is fiercely controlled in this nation of around six million, around half of whom are Christians. Most Christians belong to the Eritrean Orthodox Church (EOC), which became autocephalous following the independence of Eritrea from Ethiopia. The EOC belongs to the communion of Oriental Orthodox Churches, along with the Ethiopian, Armenian and Coptic Orthodox Churches, and others.
Only four religious communities are recognised in Eritrea: The Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, and Sunni Islam. Thousands of people are imprisoned for adhering to other confessions, or for criticising the regime. There are around 150 thousand Catholics in Eritrea, but the Church operates an important network of social services. In 2019 all of its medical facilities were abruptly confiscated by the Government, which seeks exclusive control of healthcare.