Statement of Chair Thomas J. Reese, S.J.
In support of
Eritrean Orthodox Patriarch Abune Antonios
I have chosen to work on behalf of Eritrean Orthodox Patriarch Abune Antonios whom the Eritrean government has imprisoned. Eritrea has been called the North Korea of Africa. The government detains thousands of peaceful religious and political prisoners, subjecting many to torture. Religious prisoners routinely are sent to the harshest prisons and receive some of the cruelest punishments. There are very few protections for freedom of religion or belief in Eritrea.
I hope my efforts will raise concerns about Patriarch Antonios’ treatment and help set him free, as well as highlight the systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom that take place in Eritrea.
Born in 1927, Patriarch Antonios began religious life at an early age, entering a monastery at age 5, and being ordained a priest at 15. With the unanimous endorsement of the Eritrean Church’s Holy Synod, he was elected in 2003 as the third Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church.
The government acted against Patriarch Antonios after he called for the release of political prisoners and refused government demands to excommunicate 3,000 of his parishioners who opposed the government. On January 20, 2006, the government notified Patriarch Antonios that he would no longer lead the country’s largest religious denomination. A year later, authorities confiscated his pontifical insignia and his ceremonial robes, and on May 27, 2007, forcibly removed him from his home, placing him under house arrest in an undisclosed location. The government then replaced him with Bishop Dioscoros of Mendefera.
Patriarch Antonios is 89 years old, and continues to be held incommunicado while reportedly being denied medical care, despite his suffering from severe diabetes
The government’s imprisonment of Patriarch Antonios reflects both its continued attempts to control religious bodies, such as the Eritrean Orthodox Church, and its willingness to detain those who advocate human rights and religious freedom. The Eritrean government imprisons an estimated 1,300 to 2,000 people because of their religious beliefs.
I call on the Eritrean government to release Patriarch Antonios and recognize and respect his position in the Eritrean Orthodox Church. I also call on the Eritrean government to release other religious prisoners of conscience and allow the Eritrean Orthodox Church and other religious organizations to govern their religious communities and practice their beliefs in peace.
Patriarch Antonios deserves to spend the last years of his life in freedom. I will work tirelessly to that end.