8 November 2019, Washington DC.
“Free Our Father, Abune Antonios!”
The Eritrean Orthodox Church Archdiocese of North America conducts a peaceful demonstration, where over 100 voices join in the chant to protest the unlawful arrest of Patriarch Antonius on the Ellipse field in front of the White House.
Amongst the crowd of protesters, you can distinguish representatives from the Orthodox church clad in black with golden crosses, Eritrean women donned in the white national dress of Eritrea laced with a colourful gold-tinted frame, one elderly woman clasping to her sign of the Father Antonius, a modern couple pushing along their child in a pram who sat resting calmly, wrapped up in a warm coat.
One woman said she had come all the way from Seattle to attend the protest. When asked about how she heard about the protest she says, “I am always following what is happening very closely.”
Already at 9AM small groups start gathering at Lafayette Park this frigid November morning. An elderly man stands solemnly wearing a poster with a picture of Father Antonios tied around his neck with the text in bold black letters, “His Holiness Patriarch Antonios In Chains for Christ since January of 2006.”
Old and new friends embrace at the protest space in front of the White House North side at 9:45am before the group move together in a long line making their way as a tributary down Pennsylvania Avenue NW and down 15th St. NW.
“Free! Our! Father! Free All Eritrean Prisoners of Conscience!”
A young man shouts through the megaphone, tall and clad in modern dress with a white sash paying tribute to his Eritrean background. He led the protests in English.
Despite the cold crisp day, the numbers of the protesters only increases.
Their call is an urgent one. Since 2006 Eritrean authorities have kept Patriarch Antonios under house arrest. Abune Antonios is over 90 years old and in need of medical attention, his house arrest is restrictive, with no visits even from family.
In postcard versions of the Patriarch’s photo distributed to curious onlookers, the life of Father Antonios is written out on the back. At the age of five he was sent and educated at the Debre Tsege Abuna Andrewes monastery and he was unanimously elected and endorsed by the Holy Synod of the church and ordained to be the Patriarch in 2004.
Early in his reign as Patriarch, Abune Antonios refused to conform to pressure from the state. He would not excommunicate or persecute members of the Medhane Alem Sunday School Movement, an all-age Bible study renewal movement. In 2005, because of his stand for religious freedom, the Eritrean government did not air, for the first time, the traditional Orthodox Christmas message on Eritrean television or radio. Then later in 2006 the authorities arrested the Patriarch.
On the bottom of the postcard, the famous quote of the Patriarch stands out, “No one can be above the law. Whosoever tries to trample the law underfoot will himself end up being trampled over by the law.”
The Eritrean government’s attempt to paint the Patriarch black have backfired, when they influenced the bishops of the Holy Synod of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church to abdicate him, the support for the Abune Antonios by the church’s members only increased. The protest held today in Washington DC and earlier in New York were all organised by the Eritrean Orthodox Church Tewahdo.
The protesters now move into the autumn yellow Ellipse field and congregate in a large ring, gathering together to pray and call for the release of Father Antonios and all religious prisoners of conscience. The rally then moves in unison to face the South Side of the White House.
11:00AM, the sun lights up the signs and the protesters’ faces as they continue their cry for freedom for Father Antonios and the thousands of Christian prisoners of conscience in Eritrea. Many of them are kept incognito in metal shipping containers in gruelling temperatures from freezing to baking hot. A women donned in an Eritrean flag shouts out the chants in Tigrinya, her voice breaking with the urgency and her piercing eyes tearing up.
“In Chains for Christ!”
Jubilee Campaign advocated for the Patriarch’s release at the Human Rights Council in March and called for the release of all the religious prisoners of conscience, Christians and otherwise.
Recently Jubilee Campaign submitted a letter to the Department of Homeland Security and to the Customs Enforcement urging them to:
- Suspend all forcible removals of Eritreans to Eritrea, until such time as the country is safe for
those who have fled it to return.
Please continue to keep the country of Eritrea and its people in your prayers and that the Eritrean government will release unconditionally Father Antonios and all the other prisoners of conscience held arbitrarily in Eritrea.