Patriarch Abune Antonios

Name: Abune Antonios

Age: 92

Country/Area of Origin: Eritrea

Background: Abune Antonios is the Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, one of the only four religions legally recognized by the state (others include Roman Catholic Church, Lutheran Church, and Sunni Islam). Patriarch Abune Antonios is a staunch advocate for religious freedom and separation of Church and State affairs. During his relatively short tenure as Patriarch, Abune Antonios refused to meet the government’s demands to excommunicate some 3,000 members of the Medhane Alem Sunday School Movement, which operated within the Eritrean Orthodox Church. Moreover, Patriarch Antonios publicly condemned the government for arresting priests. His acts of bravery and criticism led to an extremely oppositional relationship between himself and the government, and in 2005, the government took a first step at refusing to broadcast Patriarch Antonios’ Christmas speech.

Reason for Arrest:

In January 2006, as a result of the growing tensions, a group within the Holy Synod officially confiscated Abune Antonios’ title as the Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, and subsequently he was placed under house arrest. Approximately a year after his initial arrest, officials forcibly evacuated Patriarch Abune Antonios from his home and transported him to a secret location. Very little is known about his status or whereabouts, but it is confirmed that he experiences a severe form of diabetes and is repeatedly denied medical care by officials. Patriarch Abune Antonios has no formal charges registered against him.

Latest Updates:

  • 15 February 2022: USCIRF released a statement mourning the death of Patriarch Antonios and commemorating his life:
    • “We are deeply saddened by the passing of Patriarch Antonios. For 16 years, he was unable to leave his home or communicate freely with the outside world, all because he stood up for prisoners of conscience and resisted state demands to excommunicate members of his church. Eritrean authorities must be held accountable for the mistreatment of religious prisoners of conscience in their custody. Detention until death on the basis of one’s religious beliefs or activity is absolutely unacceptable. The Eritrean government should be better than this.”
  • On 9 February 2022, Patriarch Abune Antonios, aged 92 years, passed away from illness while in solitary confinement. Archbishop Angaelos of the Coptic Orthodox Church announced the unfortunate news in the following statement:
    • “HH #AbuneAntonios of #Eritrea has passed away after a long battle with illness, and an even more painful battle with injustice. We pray repose for His Holiness, and comfort and support for our #EritreanOrthodox sisters and brothers in Eritrea, Britain and around the world.
  • On 17 May 2021, the government of Eritrea announced the selection of Reverend Abune Qerlos as the 5th Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church. This election came despite that the current – and legitimate – 3rd Patriarch Abune Antonios, has ben detained for fifteen years. Moreover, internal regulations within the Church prohibit the selection of a new patriarch if the former one is still alive. Human Rights Concern – Eritrea released the following statement:
    • “Human Rights Concern – Eritrea condemns the decision by the Eritrean regime to replace the legitimate Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church with someone more acceptable to them, who will obey government dictates without question. This has all the marks of state interference in matters reserved to the church. The claim that the new appointee, Abune Qerlos, has been elected in accordance with all the norms and regulations of the church is entirely spurious and false, since no election of a new patriarch can occur legally whilst the present one is still alive. This so-called election must not be recognised by other churches or official state pronouncements. It is important that all diplomatic and religious authorities, the United Nations and other international bodies, as well as human rights organizations, do not give credence to this misleading announcement, or recognition to the new state appointee.”
  • In October 2020, it was reported that Patriarch Antonios, despite his elderly age, is healthy. A photo was circulated via Facebook showing him sitting outside the detention compound during his “allowed time” outdoors. However, because of the high profile of his case, the photographer remains anonymous to prevent any retribution for circulating the image.