Orthodox Christians and human rights campaigners have today marked the 10th anniversary of the deposition of the Eritrean Orthodox Patriarch Abune Antonios with calls for his release.
Eritrea is regarded as one of the world's most repressive countries and religion is strictly controlled.
Government officials told Patriarch Antonios on January 20, 2006 that he was not longer the leader of the country's largest denomination. He was replaced by Bishop Dioscoros of Mendefera, who has since died and who was never recognised by the Orthodox communion.
The government's action came after Patriarch Antonios called for the release of political prisoners and refused to excommunicate 3,000 members of his Church who opposed the regime.
The Patriarch has been under house arrest since May 2007. He is allowed very few visitors and concerns have been expressed about his health.
Metropolitan Seraphim, the head of the British Orthodox Church, told Christian Today: "We want to see him released." He said that the Orthodox Church was adamant that Antonios remained Patriarch but that talks aimed at securing his freedom had stalled. However, he said that he had been visited recently and found to be in good health.
Eritrea's regime under President Isaias Afwerki has seen thousands of Eritreans imprisoned. Torture and forced labour are extensive. Between 1,300 and 2,000 people are imprisoned because of their religious beliefs, with the government torturing and beating religious prisoners, confining many in 20-foot metal shipping containers or underground barracks where some have been subjected to extreme temperature fluctuations.
Only four religious groups are permitted to operate – the Orthodox Church of Eritrea, Sunni Islam, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Evangelical Church of Eritrea. The government exercises tight control over their activities.