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Stripped of his title and illegally replaced, Eritrea’s spiritual leader languishes in detention

(RNS) What did Patriarch Abune Antonios do? He refused to betray his flock. He refused to betray his conscience. And he refused to betray his religious beliefs.

Patriarch Abune Antonios of the Eritrean Orthodox Church.  Photo courtesy of HRCE

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese discusses efforts to help Patriarch Abune Antonios, pictured on right, during a U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom event at the Capitol Visitor Center on April 6, 2017, in Washington, D.C.  Photo courtesy of USCIRF

(RNS) — Stories speak to the best and worst in all of us, which is why as a writer and a priest, I find myself drawn to stories. All good stories have heroes, conflict and struggles.

Abune (or “Father”) Antonios is such a hero, and his story has conflict and the life-and-death struggles of a true leader.

Born in 1927, Patriarch Antonios of Eritrea entered the monastery at age 5. At 12, he was ordained a deacon, and at 15 he became a priest, like his father. He then rose to lead that country’s largest religious community, the Eritrean Orthodox Church. If there was ever a man “born to the cloth,” it was he.

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At this point, the story is almost boringly peaceful. A man feels called by his God, follows that vocation and leads the members of his flock in pursuit of their conscience, their religion and their belief. He is the shepherd for hundreds of thousands of his parishioners’ souls. It should be a “happy ever after” story.

Sadly, the story does not have a happy ending where he lives out his life tending to his flock. Rather, he has been detained at some unknown location by the Eritrean government.

Patriarch Abune Antonios of the Eritrean Orthodox Church. Photo courtesy of HRCE

The patriarch is 90 and suffers from severe diabetes. After being unjustly detained, he was denied due process and was refused medical care.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, which I chaired for the past year, is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission. We are dedicated to highlighting violations of the universal right to freedom of religion or belief abroad and make policy recommendations to the U.S. government.

As part of our work, USCIRF commissioners have adopted religious prisoners of conscience for whom we advocate. Antonios is my prisoner of conscience. As a man also called to religious life and the priesthood, I see myself reflected in the patriarch. Yet I walk the streets of Washington, D.C., freely, speak to whomever I wish and write articles that any and all may read.

Not so for Antonios. In 2004, he was duly elected head of Eritrea’s largest religious community – the Eritrean Orthodox Church. But in that country, even the legitimate leader of a large religious community endures great government interference.

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What were the “crimes” for which he was detained? In 2005, he called for the release of political prisoners. The government then ordered him to excommunicate 3,000 members of the church who opposed the government. These believers were to receive one of the harshest punishments any religion can give simply for asserting their political rights. In effect, he was told to condemn his parishioners to being outside their church forever.

What did Antonios do? He refused. He refused to betray his flock. He refused to betray his conscience. And he refused to betray his religious beliefs.

Because of these refusals, in 2006 he was removed as leader of the Eritrean Orthodox Church. In 2007, the government stripped him of his pontifical insignia – the sacred symbol of his office – illegally replaced him as the head of the church and forcefully removed him from his home. That happened 10 years ago this past May. The patriarch just celebrated his 90th birthday, stripped of his dignity, his office and his freedom. And, no, we still do not know where he is.

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USCIRF has rightly referred to Eritrea as “the North Korea of Africa” when it comes to religious freedom.

The 2017 USCIRF annual report describes conditions in stark terms: “Systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations include torture or other ill treatment of religious prisoners, arbitrary arrests and detentions without charges, a prolonged ban on public religious activities of unregistered religious groups, and interference in the internal affairs of registered religious groups.”

For these reasons, USCIRF recommends that the State Department continue to designate Eritrea as a “country of particular concern.” In terms of international religious freedom, being on this list means you are among the worst of the worst.

For more than 10 years, the Eritrean government has denied the country’s largest religious community its rightful leader. Orthodox priests continue to see Antonios as the church’s leader and dozens have been arrested for protesting the government’s illegal replacement. Antonios’ flock has proved as loyal to him as he has been to them. Orthodox churches outside of Eritrea have also condemned his removal and refused to recognize his replacement.

This past week, Antonios was spotted at a Mass, but then promptly returned to his confinement. We now know he is still alive, but our brief hopes for his freedom were dashed by a regime that shows no end to its cruelty.

I implore the Eritrean government to do the right thing: Release Patriarch Antonios. Allow him to take his duly elected position as the head of the Eritrean Orthodox Church and let the Eritrean people exercise their right to freedom of religion or belief.

(The Rev. Thomas J. Reese is a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom)