Eritrean Orthodox Church and the case of Patriarch Abune Antonios

Smokes of Propaganda?

It was the day before yesterday, to be exact, on Sunday 16/07/2017, that some fresh and seemingly good news but highly orchestrated event came from Asmara Saint Mary Orthodox Church. The news which is published at an official Eritrean Orthodox Church website reported that Patriarch Abune Antonios was released from his eleven (11) years imprisonment and as a good will attended for a ‘Prayer for Reconciliation’.  According to the news, the reconciliation process and public meeting (please click here to see the event )  are aimed to reconcile Abune Antonios and the Church leadership so that his eleven years imprisonment under PFDJ to have an end peacefully with a forgiveness.

Nevertheless, this sophisticated public trial by politically painted religious leaders is the first of its kind in the church history throughout its entire 1600 years life span. colonizers/Politicians might have exploited the church but never did such an open and public persecution. The church might have suffered from invaders, religious wars, and colonizers. It could have sidelined to an extent that it has once diluted its religious mission. However, what the Church has faced under PFDJ rule is unparalleled.

PFDJ and his Suppression of Human Rights Freedom of Thoughts and Religion

As a continuation of freedom suppression in all Eritrean life, PFDJ representative for religious affairs openly started to give directives to all religious institutions. Orthodox Church was one of the then officially recognized religions in Eritrea. As a state controlled institution, directives started to come from Mr. Yeftehe Dimetros, the then government’s official responsible for church matters. Patriarch Abune Antonios resisted such kind of interferences. As a result, Abune Antonios was prohibited from conveying 2005 new year message via the only existing TV channel. And on the synod meeting held from 6 to 7 August 2005, the Patriarch is removed from his position and on January 13, 2006, secret agents came to his residence place and took him to an unknown location. Since then he was put under the prison. Little was known about where he was about until recent time.

Patriarch Abune Antonios was accused of two things:

  1. His reluctance to excommunicate 3,000 members of the Medhane Alem, an Orthodox Sunday School movement,
  2. His demands that the government should release imprisoned Christians accused of treason.

These were just a fake accusations. The real motive was suppression of religious freedom. According to Universal Declaration of Human Freedom, as stated under Article 18 everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship, and observance. This is what PFDJ actually was violating as he did to Freedom of press and thoughts. Now that PFDj is trying to camouflage his crimes on religious freedom whatever propaganda is used has no value in front of the truth.

What the Eritrean Orthodox Church is facing is not different from that of Jehova witness, Pentecostalism, and other banned religious sects.

If CPSU was in USSR, so is now PFDJ in Eritrea: 

There is a strong parallelism for what the Communist Party of Soviet Union (CPSU) was doing and today’s acts of PFDJ for the Orthodox Church.  Both political parties controlled the church for their own political agenda. What might be different with the Eritrean Orthodox Church is that PFDJ is using the church to liquidate other religions while Russia was using the church to brainwash the people.  The world has a similar experience. For example, former the Sovietveit Union had manipulated Russian Orthodox Church for its own political agenda by hiring KGB officials in the ranks of religious freedom.

After the fall of USSR, archives of KGB, the Committee for State Security, which is equivalent to National Security of Eritrea (ሃገራዊ ድሕነት)revealed that there was a clear connection of the Orthodox hierarchy to the Soviet government. According to the revelation, a number of bishops were part of the KGB apparatus. CPSU had complete control over the Church through directives that run from the Politburo via the Council of Religious affairs and finally to the KGB. Some documents showed that 9 out of 10within the top church hierarchy were KGB members. Today, this same hierarchy seem to exist within PFDJ system of controlling religious institutions, both within and outside Eritrea.

illustration

What PFDJ tried over Patriarch Abune Antonios is a similar attempt to control the church via the political affairs of PFDJ. The resistance encountered from the Abune Antonios was a blockage from what was assumed to be attained. As a consequence, PFDJ fabricated false accusations and deposed the Patriarch from his position. After banning him from delivering new year message, he was replaced by another bishop under a strictly controlled synod meetings.

The Patriarch condemned the action taken by the synod through an official letter written in Tigrigna (its translated version is available at www.tewahdo.org as given in the captured pictures below). In his letter, he warned the grave mistake they had taken against the Constitution of the Church.

 

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Captured screen pictures of the letter written by Patriarch Abune Antonios

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Dictator Issaias Afewerki pretending religious and kissing the Holy Cross of the 3rd Patriarch Abune Antonios.

Appointment of New Patriarch and the Vacuum Created after

A fourth patriarch, His holiness Abune Dioskoros was appointed as new head of the church. Though there was no information about the newly elected patriarch, considering his age, deteriorating health and strict control, he had the church became under the total control of PFDJ.

Like the Orthodox Church of the Soviet era, where the Church was controlled by the state under a strict surveillance of KGB, after the outpost of Patriarch Abune Antoniosm PFDJ controlled the Church by appointing leaders affiliated with the party. In every meeting and international visits, an agent from PFDJ has to accompany them.

Patriarch Abune Dioskoros died on December 21, 2015. His death has created a vacuum of leadership and the increasing international pressure and disagreement among bishops left the church vulnerable to further division. The church failed to nominate new patriarch. As the anathema put by Patriarch Abune Antonios was not uplifted, some bishops called for his release and return to his position.

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Funeral Service of the 4th Patriarch His Holiness Abune Dioskoros in the presence of Issaias Afewerki (26/12/2015)

PFDJ responded by pressuring His Holiness Abune Antonios to sign a regret paper by acknowledging his mistakes. PFDJ promised the time he signed the paper, he will be released. The Patriarch stood on his principle and rejected to sign a regret paper.

After that, the Church could not nominate one. Instead, General Secretary of Synod started to head the church since then. From December 2015, the Church has no patriarch and is lead by a General Secretary. This is the worst development of modern Christian history in Eritrea. A church without a leader is like a sheep without a shepherd.

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General Secretary of the Synod Abune Lukas as head of Eritrean Orthodox Church

A Divided Church and its Struggle for Restoring Rule of Law

After the incidence of 2015, the church has seen unprecedented division. Those who called for an immediate release of Patriarch Abune Antonios were considered as anti-church and accused as “Reformists”. Some were detained and others flee from the country. There was no chance to voice for justice by being in Eritrea. Many church leaders, monks, deacons, priests, and elders became targets of PFDJ and National security agents. Churches who rejected the new patriarch were pressured to obey an order.

The worst effect of such government interference was observed outside Eritrea. Churches in North America and Canada denounced the newly appointed Patriarch and formally declared their recognition for the out posted patriarch. They became ardent dissidents and are continuously calling for his immediate release since then. The North American Church lead by H.G. Abune Macarius is the main resistance force and keeper of Patriarch Abune Antonios position.

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H.G. Abune Makarius (Second from left front row), photo taken on the occasion of Standing Conference of Oriental Orthodox Churches 2013

Priests like Rev. Fr. Athanasius Ghebre-Ab, Keshi Merkos Debas, Keshi Mussie are among the prominent advocators for the release and liberation of Orthodox Church from PFDJ interference.

 

Not only among religious leaders, many human rights activists voiced for his immediate release. Human Rights Council for Eritrea(HRCE) is among the prominent civic organization that brought the case of ABune Antonios to UNHRC.

The Church of Coptic Church of Egypt and all other Oriental churches denounced the nomination and did not recognize this new appointment. Eritrean Coptic Church broke its historical relationship with those churches. UN Human Rights and other Religious Rights advocators called for his immediate release without any precondition.

PFDJ Interference in the Churches

PFDJ assumed his power over the church but not everything was under its control. To silence those who stood against PFDJ interference, trained cadres were ordained as deacons and priests. These deacons and priests infiltrated every church and became main actors of church activity. Churches which were relatively free from PFDJ control could not tolerate such interference. As a result, the Orthodox church in the diaspora was divided as those who were controlled by the regime and those who declared their freedom from the regime.

Followers of the Church found themselves between two aisles. At this time, the division is so clear and it will be hard to create a conducive environment for reconciliation and union. PFDJ used defamation campaign against those religious dissidents. The people have developed a wrong perception. This perception will not be easy to be removed.

16/07/2017: Public Appearance of Patriarch Abune Antonios and its Tactics

On 11/07/2017, an official website of the Eritrean Orthodox Church has released a letter signed by 10 top leaders of the church indicates about his release and reconciliation within the church. The letter has mentioned that the achievement was a long time effort which has finally closed with success. The dispute was then closed its chapter by formally conducting mass praying on 16/07/2017.

letter-official

Nevertheless, information diffused by mass media from reliable sources are indicating the move was a drama of deception. Patriarch Abune Antonios was attended the mass without formally getting a trial for his 11 years release. He did not speak and there is no indication for the placement of his formal position. 20228622_1619119434788603_6263346637117473451_n

A picture that shows Abune Antonios during 16/07/2017 attendance in the Church

The Patriarch did not dress as supposed to be. Even during the mass, according to an audio record released by Arbi Harnet(given below), there was high tension.

My Assessment 

PFDJ has no intention to release the Patriarch but it is doing for only and only one main reason. And that is International Pressure. The government of Eritrea is under pressure from the international community for its systematic and widespread of crimes against humanity. UN Human Rights Council has officially accused the government of its crimes and is now under further investigation to bring criminals to justice. For the last five or more years, PFDJ officials had continuously tried to rationalize their crimes. At this time there are more excuses. Almost all countries within the UN have called for change human Rights situation in Eritrea. Except for few countries, there are no countries that have diplomatic relations with the government. In every UN meetings, it is getting huge pressure.

To get some relief, the government must pretend to have registered developments. For the next UN meetings, which is going to be held in October 2017, at least Eritrea is expected to present some tangible presents. Therefore, there is nothing more worthy. And to achieve its goal, PFDj has exposed him to the public without giving a due trial. This is injustice at most.

Congratulations Message to Abune Antonios and Conclusion

Should I write a congratulation message to Patriarch Abune Antonios? This question is too delicate. When I wrote a congratulation message on my facebook page, my friends were confused on what I wrote. They did not expect me to write as such. They were right if I was writing it in its literal form. I assure you my congratulation message transcends normal thinking. It is a message directed to a physically dead but alive Saint.

My message was never meant to the Church directly. I think it is better to say it when a person is alive. Otherwise, once the Patriarch is dead, the message I have for him is Rest in Peace and to his family and the Church “My Condolence”. Now, I want to convey a different but strong congratulation message.

Patriarch Abune Antonios deserves a condolence message while he is alive as he is physically dead. And his physical death is his Martyrdom, a Holy and Blessed Death. He is alive in Spirit and the Church is lucky to be visited by Abune Antonios. He is living Saint. Though he is again manipulated for propaganda and political purpose, his courage has again proved how strong religious person he is.

The reconciliation call was not innocent but his presence within the church was. It was a sign of his love to the Church and the people. 

May I say ” Condolence”? Hell ‘NO’. He is a living Saint. And the Church will be liberated from this grand sacrifice. The Church is blessed to have such a Martyrs. 11 years of his imprisonment is nothing but his meditation and praying period.

I congratulate again for his ultimate sacrifice and his courage to visit his Church. The Church has a fresh blood donated by a living Saint. The Orthodox Church is blessed with many Saints and now here is one among his people walking with mind fullness.

PFDJ is in his routine political agenda. Nothing has changed. Those security agents, agents that are manipulating the church will get their punishment. God is full of mercy but their satanic acts are letting God express his anger.

The Church has once again proved the teachings of Jesus Christ. What happened on 16/07/2017 is more like the incident of Jesus in front of king Pilatos.

For this, I need to send CONGRATULATIONS message to Abune Antonios.

Crimes of PFDJ are countless and it will not stop here. here is one proof of their crimes against religious leaders. 11 years in prison and finally released without any trial.

 

How People Reacted to his Release?

  1. A prominent Activist and Vocal prominent against  PFDJ, Keshi Shishay Mussie wrote on his Facebook page as follows:

“ቀደማዊ እንጦንዮስ ናብ መንበሮም ኣይተመለሱን፡ውግዘት ኣየልዓሉን፡ኣብቲ ቅዳሴ ድማ ኣይባረኹን ኣይተዛረቡን ሓቅን ሓሶትን ፊት ንፊት ተጠንቀቅ ህዝቢ ክርስቲያን ኮምንስታዊ ተንኮል ንዓኻ ንምብታን ንቤተ ክርስቲያንካ ኽኣ ካብ ሱራ ንምውሓው ይሰርሕ ኣሎ ንቅሓሉ። ንሕና ኦርቶዶክሳውያን ዋላ ህጂ ንስሕሓብ ኣሕዋት ኢና፡እቲ መንግስቲ ግን ሓላፊ ኢዩ፡ስለዚ ንዝሓልፍ መንግስቲ ክንብል እምነትናን ሓድነትናን ኣብ ዋጋ ዕዳጋ ኣይነእቱ።” 

Translated as: “Patriarch Antonios has not returned to his position. He did not uplift the anathema imposed on the Church. During the praying session, he neither did a blessing nor a preach/speech. Face the facts and the fake news. People of the Church, beware. The Communist ideology is working against the Church by dividing and demolishing its root foundation. Be conscious. No matter how high tension exists between us, we, the Orthodox people are brothers. The government will be gone. Therefore, let us not put our church in danger for the sake of passing government. 

2. A friend of mine wrote this:

As a person, I think he died a long time when he decided to be a monk. Thus living a life of this kind would be uncounted in the eyes of the God. If the issue was a power struggle, he should not spend a day in jail. I think he pays an ultimate price to lead the church it should and that is why he spent his 11 years fighting against the barbaric regime. I prefer to die for him rather than come up and simply ignore what he was accused of.

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