'Hero of the faith' Eritrean patriarch dies after 15 years under house arrest

Patriarch Antonios pictured in 2020.(Photo: Christian Solidarity Worldwide)

Christians have expressed their sadness after the death of the legitimate patriarch of the Eritrean Tehwado Orthodox Church.

Abune Antonios died on 9 February after spending 15 years under house arrest.

He was buried the following day at the Abune Andreas monastery, to which he belonged.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) called him a "deeply principled man" and "hero of the faith" who made a "courageous stand" for religious freedom in Eritrea. 

Patriarch Antonios was removed from the Church's leadership in 2005 at the behest of the Eritrean government.

His removal came after he resisted repeated government interference in church affairs, and defended the Orthodox renewal movement, Medhane Alem, including three priests imprisoned over their involvement. 

In 2007 he was illegally replaced as head of the Church by the government-approved Bishop Dioscoros, whom the Orthodox papacy in Egypt refused to recognise up to his death in 2015. 

Patriarch Antonios remained defiant in the face of pressure and continued to criticise his removal from office and house arrest during his years of imprisonment. 

In 2019, he was accused of heresy by five pro-government bishops and excommunicated. 

In response, he said in a statement, "The Eritrean Synod are the accusers and adjudicators, without listening to my side. They broke the law of the Eritrean Orthodox Church."

Responding to news of his death, CSW's Founder President Mervyn Thomas said: "Abune Antonios was a deeply principled man who prioritised his calling over the politicisation of the Church by a regime deemed to have committed crimes against humanity since 1991.

"Despite 16 years of unremitting pressure, mistreatment, and defamation, the patriarch never compromised, even when it could have led in his reinstatement.

"He chose instead to protect the integrity and doctrine of the Church with which he had been entrusted, at the cost of freedom and comfort in his twilight years." 

Thomas called on the international community to honour the patriarch's "courageous stand" for religious freedom by "regalvanising efforts" to secure the release of the three Orthodox priests he defended and the thousands of others detained arbitrarily in Eritrea for their religion or beliefs. 

"We also urge the Egyptian Orthodox authorities, to whom the late patriarch appealed his case, to ensure a succession that is in line with Church tradition," he added.

"Recognising the current incumbent would be tantamount to legitimising the unjust and illegal removal, imprisonment and mistreatment of a hero of the faith."