Morning Chronicle - Detained Eritrean Orthodox ex-leader dies at 94

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Detained Eritrean Orthodox ex-leader dies at 94
Detained Eritrean Orthodox ex-leader dies at 94

Detained Eritrean Orthodox ex-leader dies at 94

The former head of Eritrea's Orthodox church, who spent more than a decade under house arrest, has died aged 94, church officials and a London-based religious rights group said Thursday.

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Abune Antonios was put under house arrest in 2007 by the notoriously repressive government of the Horn of Africa nation in a case that drew criticism from rights groups, the European Parliament, France and the United States.

Anba Angaelo, the Archbishop of London for the Coptic Orthodox Church, called for "a moment's silence and prayer... for the repose of Late #AbuneAntonios of #Eritrea, who suffered such injustice."

Mervyn Thomas, the founder president of Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), described the late patriarch as "a deeply principled man".

"The patriarch's body was taken to the Abune Andreas monastery, to which he belonged, and he was buried there on 10 February at 9am local time," CSW said in a statement.

"Local sources report that a large crowd gathered at his burial site, many of whom had travelled long distances on foot."

Antonios was stripped of his role as head of Eritrea's Orthodox church in 2006 after he refused to excommunicate 3,000 government opponents and called for the release of political prisoners.

He was then placed under house arrest -- a condition that lasted until at least 2017, when he reportedly made a public appearance, although the United States and CSW say he remained confined until his death.

The United States regarded him as a prisoner of conscience and viewed his detention as a violation of religious freedom.

"The US Embassy in Asmara is very sad to hear about the passing of Abune Antonios, Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, after being under house arrest for more than 15 years," the embassy said on its Facebook page Thursday.

According to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, Antonios was born on July 12, 1927 and sent by his father to be educated at a monastery at the age of five.

- Oppression -

Serving as a monk, he was ordained a priest in 1942, an abbot in 1955, and as the third patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Tawahedo Church in 2004.

Eritrea is among Africa's poorest countries and President Isaias Afwerki's government is viewed by international observers as one of the continent's most oppressive.

Along with running a one-party state that routinely jails dissidents and hasn't held an election since independence from Ethiopia in 1993, Afwerki's regime closely manages how the country's six million people worship in a bid to maintain national unity.

Half of the country is Muslim while the other half is Christian, and only four religious denominations are officially allowed: Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam and the Orthodox Church, which has ancient roots in Eritrea.

Eritrean Orthodox leaders appointed a new patriarch who died in 2015. However, Antonios was still seen by the leaders of the Egypt-based Coptic Orthodox Church as the legitimate head of Eritrea's denomination.