They say the death of an elderly man is like a burning library. How would one measure the loss or cope grief when such figure wasn’t just aged but he was Patriarch for the Eritrea Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Abune Antonios? A leader deposed, and under house arrest for over 15 years.
What is the calamity of such loss of a leader of religious group that makes up 40% of the Eritrean population? And do we mourn or celebrate his life knowing such God serving figure-this burning library was left to burn slowly before demise? It is all mixed feelings. conflicting feelings driven by anger, guilt and despair. At its core, this burning emotion is endless superfluous mistreatment of Eritreans – regardless of religion affiliation, ethnicity or rank.
If there is anything well retained in the memories of Eritreans, it is their historic struggle for independence, offensive wars from the south and the unaccounted and silenced many perishing – jailed Eritreans who question or criticize the administration of president Isayas Afwerki, yet the nation to hear their fate.
With similar circumstances, some nations read their prisoners verdict, others issue pardon -and Eritreans dare ask. Many are languishing in prisons inside Eritrea for decades with no due process.
With no official statement from Issaya’s administration and no news report by Eritrean government run media, reports on the death of Patriarch, Abune Antonios, the third Patriarch of the Eritrea Orthodox Church surfaced in social media on Wednesday.
Anger and guilt of failure, knowing this is another passing of Eritreans jailed and held incommunicado. And just like the rest their body put to rest in graves with no questions asked or explanation offered. In 2018 Eritreans grieve for the passing of Haji Musa Mohamed Nur, honorary president of the Al diaa Islamic school who died in detention in Asmara. Both religion leaders stood for the autonomy of religion and resists government intrusion.
The never ratified constitution of Eritrea of 1997, article 19 (Freedom of conscience, religion, expression…..) address the rights that were denied to those religion leaders. Gazette of Eritrean Laws, Proclamation 73/1995, also outline separation of religion and government.
In May 2021, the government of Eritrea announced Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church had elected Reverend Abune Qerlos as the patriarch, claiming it was conducted in accordance with the norms and regulations of the Holy Synod and the Church.
For many it came as a shock. It was unheard of for the Orthodox Tewahdo Church to elect a new Patriarch, when it’s sitting Patriarch, Abune Antonios, the third Patriarch was still alive. The government in power will go to such length, announce the election of church leader, when the leader in power, President Issayas Afwerki shies away from election and leadership responsibilities – an issue that had landed many Eritreans in prison. The Orthodox Tewahdo Church, pressured by the government of Eritrea to replacing the late Abune Antonios while still alive and on house arrest was a total sham to say the least.
With life expectancy for male Eritreans at 64-65, Eritrean Patriarch Abune Antonios, the third died at the age of 94. His death at such age indeed calls for us to celebrate his life. Alas we will always be reminded as a nation, Eritrean Patriarch Abune Antonios spend the last 15 years of his life not serving his God and church but in house arrest.
“The church, that we had inherited from our fathers is autonomous and we abide by its rules. I was in jail for the past 12 years and I still remain in jail for following those rules.” Those are direct quote of Abune Antonios during public appearance in 2018. “I shall not abandon but die upholding the rules of the church and I pray to God to bestow strength upon me.”
Abune Antonios has passed remembered by Eritreans and the world as principled leader who stood up to power to protect the orthodox Tewahdo church and its congregation.
In Tigrinya they say Nemewot aytebkeyo, nehelfet bekeyo (ንምውት ኣይትብከዩ ንሕልፈት ብኽዩ) – close translation, don’t cry for the death, cry for the ineffective. Imagine what could have been accomplished if government of Eritrea is run by a leader, just like Abune Antonios, a leader who serves and put the nation and its people first, rather than one dictates, intimidates and set the nation on down spiral. Those are the times one is remined indeed, ንምዉት ኣይትብከዩ ንሕልፈት ብኽዩ።