Patriarch’s first appearance in decade dismissed as ‘figleaf’

A brief public appearance from the Eritrean Orthodox Patriarch after ten years under house arrest has been dismissed as a “figleaf” to cover over the regime’s “appalling human rights record”.

Patriarch Abune Antonios participated in a Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral in the capital, Asmara, on Sunday (16 July), during which a deacon appeared to distance the Church from its silenced leader.

Following ten years with no word of his welfare, rights agencies welcomed the proof that the 90-year-old diabetic Patriarch is still alive, but were dismayed that his appearance signalled neither his release nor his reinstatement as the Eritrean Orthodox Church (EOC)’s legitimate leader.

The regime in Asmara stripped Antonios of his title and placed him under house arrest in 2007 after he refused to comply with government attempts to interfere with church affairs.

His appearance on Sunday followed the publication of a letter on the EOC’s website from the Church’s Holy Synod, stating that the rift caused by his removal from office was over and that there was now “full reconciliation, peace and love with Abune Antonios“. His signature was not among those on the letter.

During Sunday’s Mass he was surrounded by guards, while plain-clothes policemen in the congregation dissuaded churchgoers from taking pictures or videos, according to the rights group Christian Solidarity Worldwide.

A deacon read out an announcement explaining that the Mass marked the culmination of a six-month reconciliation process.

It added that the Patriarch, who the congregation were told was unable to address them because of ill health, was incarcerated because of his association with heretical teaching and because he had overstepped his authority as a Patriarch. However, it added that he rejected the accusations.

According to diaspora-led movement Arbi Harnet (“Freedom Friday”), Antonios had wanted to address the congregation and pray for it but his requests had been rejected.

The reconciliation effort has been led by the Union of the Monasteries and Church Scholars to reunite Orthodox worshippers loyal to Antonios and those who have accepted the regime’s criticisms of him. However, observers fear the process could be exploited by those who want to install a Patriarch prepared to comply with Asmara.

Arbi Harnet maintains that the reconciliation effort was aimed at pressuring the Patriarch into lifting his excommunication of a cleric who has been unofficially leading the Church, Abuna Lucas.

According to Arbi Harnet, the Patriarch had been assured that Sunday’s Mass would include a public apology from members of the clergy who had sided with the government. However, no such apology was made, and Antonios’ requests to address the congregation and pray for it were rejected.

After the Mass, priests urged people to leave the church compound, and when they did not, plain-clothed security officers in the crowd began pushing people out of the compound and the Patriarch was incarcerated again.

Former BBC Africa editor Martin Plaut, reporting on the Patriarch’s appearance, linked to an audio recording from the church service, published on YouTube and embedded below.

Fr Thomas Reece, a Jesuit and a commissioner on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, yesterday condemned the regime for continuing to detain the Patriarch. “Our brief hopes for his freedom were dashed by a regime that shows no end to its cruelty,” he wrote.

CSW said the Patriarch’s brief appearance “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 figleaf for individuals, nations, businesses and organisations that seek to engage with the regime in spite of its appalling human rights record”.

Eritrea ranks as the 10th worst nation in the world in terms of Christian persecution, according to Open Doors’ 2017 World Watch List, its Marxist-Leninist government “intolerant towards any form of association, dissent and free expression”.