The Eritrean Orthodox Patriarch, detained at home since 2007, has been allowed to attend a church service for the first time since his arrest – but supporters say in spite of this there has been no reconciliation with the regime.
Patriarch Abune Antonios was arrested and deposed by the repressive Eritrean regime after he criticised its human rights record and refused to allow it to interfere in Church affairs. The government installed another patriarch who was not recognised by the wider Orthodox Church, but he died in 2015.
Antonios, now aged 90, was allowed to take part in the mass at St Mary's Cathedral in the capital, Asmara, but local sources told Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) that he was surrounded by guards and that plain-clothes policeman dissuaded the congregation from taking pictures.
According to CSW, the patriarch's appearanced followed the publication on the website of the Eritrean Orthodox Church of a letter from its Holy Synod saying the rift caused by his removal from office was over. It published a picture of a 'reconciliation committee' comprising the 'Union of the Monasteries and Church Scholars', who had participated in a process that had allegedly ended in 'full reconciliation'.
At the service on Sunday a statement from the reconciliation committee was read. However, Antonios himself has yet to speak out and has previously categorically denied the charges against him.
CSW's chief executive Mervyn Thomas said: 'Sadly, as information filters through from Eritrea, it is becoming apparent that Abune Antonios may not have been released, let alone reinstated. Instead, his reappearance increasingly seems to be part of an official attempt to seize control of the narrative following a wave of international pressure for his release, and to provide a fig leaf for individuals, nations, businesses and organisations that seek to engage with the regime in spite of its appalling human rights record.
'Patriarch Antonios, who suffers from diabetes and high blood pressure, has been detained incommunicado for a lengthy period and for no legitimate reason. CSW calls once again for his unconditional release and reinstatement, and echoes the request from the EOC Diocese of North America for the presence of representatives from sisterly Oriental Orthodox churches to observe and confirm the reconciliation process.
'We also urge the international community not only to make urgent representations with the Eritrean authorities regarding the patriarch's current situation, but to also hold them accountable for his continued wellbeing, reminding them his removal from office constitutes unlawful interference in church affairs and calling for his immediate release and restoration.'