Abune (Father) Antonios, the legitimate patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Church, died a year ago today. He was 94 years old, and had spent the last 16 years of his life under house arrest following his repeated objections to unwarranted government interference in church affairs.
In April 2004, the patriarch was appointed with the unanimous endorsement of the Holy Synod of the Church to lead one of only four recognised religious denominations in Eritrea (the others being Catholicism, Evangelical Lutheranism, and Sunni Islam). As a leader of one of the few religious communities not directly outlawed by the Eritrean authorities, one might have expected that he would not face the harassment and pressures the Eritrean regime excels in dispensing.
However, this was not the case. By August 2005 he had been removed by the government from administrative control of the patriarchate, and confined to ceremonial duties. Then in January 2006 he was removed from office in violation of canon law, his advisor Merigeta Yitbarek Berhe was detained, and he was held under de facto house arrest at his official residence. Eventually, in 2007 the patriarch’s personal pontifical insignia and clothing were seized, and he was formally placed under incommunicado house arrest in an undisclosed location in the Eritrean capital, Asmara.
His crime, in the eyes of a government bent on ‘Church capture’, was his repeated resistance to their attempts to interfere in ecclesiastical affairs, including his notable refusal to expel 3000 members of the Orthodox renewal movement known as Medhane Alem, his vocal protests of the detention of three priests from said movement in November 2004, and his objection to the imposition of a pro-government lay person as the Church’s chief administrator, a position reserved for bishops.
The government wanted a servant, a mouthpiece who would allow it to control the Church’s assets, but Patriarch Antonios would not comply. Even during the 15 years of official house arrest to which he was subsequently subjected – and during which faced false accusations of heresy, illegal ‘excommunication,’ confinement in servants’ quarters and forcible injections with unknown substances, among other mistreatment – the patriarch remained an outspoken critic of the regime, primarily through videos and statements smuggled out of the country.
For decades the Eritrean regime has been responsible for one of the most severe and unwavering crackdowns on freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) in recent history. Unrecognised religious and belief groups are particularly vulnerable, but as the case of Patriarch Antonios makes abundantly clear, even those belonging to recognised groups are not safe.
As we remember today the life of a man who refused to compromise his beliefs in the face of unrelenting repression, we must also remember those like the patriarch, who continue to suffer for the very same reason.
For example, seven leaders from the Evangelical and Orthodox denominations have spent even more years in detention than Patriarch Antonios did. Their names are Reverend Haile Naizge and Reverend Dr Kuflu Gebremeskel, both detained since May 2004; Reverend Million Gebreselassie, detained since June 2004; the three Orthodox priests Dr Futsum Gebrenegus, Dr Tekleab Menghisteab, and Reverend Gebremedhin Gebregiorgis, detained since November 2004; and Reverend Kidane Woldu, detained since March 2005.
All are believed to be held in Wengel Mermera Investigation Centre in Asmara, but there is little information regarding their current status and wellbeing.
Violations are by no means limited to the Christian community. Next month will mark the fifth anniversary of the death in detention of Haji Musa Mohammed Nur, the highly-respected nonagenarian honorary president of the Al Diaa Islamic School, who was arrested in October 2017 for opposing the government’s attempt to expropriate the establishment.
Ten months later, another respected Muslim elder and member of the Executive Committee of Al Diaa Islamic School, Haji Ibrahim Younus, died in Asmara’s 5th Police Station, where he had been held since his arrest in October 2017, and where Haji Musa had also died.
As CSW stated following the death of Haji Musa, he had ‘paid the ultimate price for standing courageously against a government deemed guilty of committing crimes against humanity since 1991.’ Haji Younus and Patriarch Antonios did the same. As Eritrea approaches its 30th year of de jure independence, we owe it to their memories to ensure their sacrifices were not in vain.
Since the 2016 report of the UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Human Rights in Eritrea detailed the grave crimes perpetrated by the Afewerki regime since 1991, including crimes against humanity committed in a ‘widespread and systematic manner’ in Eritrean detention facilities, military training camps and other locations across the country, its recommendations have not been acted on.
An ominous recommendation within the report was for the UN Security Council to determine the situation of human rights in Eritrea a threat to international peace and security, and to refer it to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC). This too was ignored, and the Eritrean government currently stands accused of committing similar atrocity crimes in the Tigray region of neighbouring Ethiopia. Its troops remain there, despite the conclusion of a peace treaty between the regional authorities and the Ethiopian government, with reports of looting, rape, and massacres continuing to emerge.
Steps could be taken to hold the Eritrean regime accountable for its crimes, but despite its appalling crimes, political will remains lacking.
One avenue for possible action is the UN Human Rights Council, where at a minimum, states could ensure the renewal of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Eritrea.
However, the regime’s continuing presence on that same Council is both disappointing and poses a challenge to more robust action. Last year the international community united to remove Russia from the HRC, even before the full extent of the crimes it has committed against Ukrainian civilians had come to light. Yet, Eritrea maintains a seat on the Council despite the existence of a detailed report by a Council mechanism outlining its commission of the gravest international crimes.
Eritrea’s seat on the Council is a travesty that needs to be remedied urgently. Additionally, mechanisms must be established to hold identified perpetrators of severe human rights violations and crimes against humanity to account, and states must also co-ordinate targeted sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, on said individuals.
The Eritrean government will not stop unless it is made to stop. Without actions such as those outlined above, the failure to achieve justice for Patriarch Antonios, Haji Musa, Haji Younus and every other victim of this sadistic regime, both in Eritrea and Tigray, will remain a sad indictment of the international community.
By CSW’s Founder President Mervyn Thomas CMG