Eritrea elects new Orthodox Church head

Asmara, Eritrea - Eritrea's Orthodox Church has named a new head but a Christian group condemned the move on Wednesday as a sign of growing state interference in church affairs in the Red Sea state.

Abune Dioskoros was named fourth patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, replacing former head Abune Antonios, according to a statement in a government-owned English newspaper.

It did not say why the old patriarch had been replaced.

British-based Christian group, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), said the appointment was illegal, and that Antonios had been placed under house arrest.

"A renegade bishop has been declared its new patriarch sixteen months after the ordained pontiff was illegally removed from office," the group said on its Web site

"This is yet another low in the sad litany of Eritrean government interference in church affairs," CSW Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said in a statement.

"Such an unprecedented level of state interference in church affairs is wholly unacceptable in this day and age," he added.

CSW said Antonios was one of some 2,000 Christians detained without trial or charge in Eritrea.

Eritrea's population of under five million is split roughly equally between Muslims and Christians, the majority Orthodox.

Its government routinely denies such accusations of interference, but has been accused by human rights groups and the U.S. State Department of violating religious freedoms.