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ICC NOTE: This a continuation of a story about the former leader Abune Antonios, who has spoken critically of the government’s control of the church in Eritrea. For months he has been under house arrest.

Orthodox patriarch of Eritrea sacked

Wednesday 1 February 2006

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Jan 31, 2006 ( ASMARA ) — The Orthodox Church in Eritrea has sacked the country’s patriarch, a senior government official said Tuesday, dismissing charges the move was made under pressure from authorities.

Patriarch Abune Antonios was removed from his post by the Synod of the Orthodox Church earlier this month, Eritrean Information Minister Ali Abdu said in the first official confirmation of the sacking.

“The synod informed the government that it had decided to remove the patriarch from his position during a meeting this month,” he said, declining to discuss specifics of the move.

“They found he should not continue,” Ali Abdu said. “Why? I cannot talk on their behalf, it was an internal meeting. Eritrea is secular; the government has nothing to do with that decision.”

Officials at the church headquarters in Asmara confirmed that Abune was no longer the patriarch and said a successor had not yet been chosen but declined to comment further on the matter.

An Eritrean opposition website reported this month that Abune, who had been the Orthodox patriarch since March 2004, had been fired for being too critical of the government and complaining about interference in church activities.

In August 2005, the same website said that Abune had angered the government and been relieved of many of his duties in the church and was no longer involved in its day-to-day administration.

Human rights groups and the United States regularly accuse the Eritrean authorities of religious persecution, particularly against unregistered evangelical Christian congregations.

In 2004, the US States Department classified Eritrea as a “country of particular concern” for “particularly severe violations of religious freedom” including the arrests of hundreds of worshippers.

Asmara routinely denounces such reports as “fabrications.”

Eritrea ’s 3.5 million population is equally divided among Muslims and Christians and the government officially recognizes four religious denominations: Islam, Orthodox, Catholic and the Eritrean Evangelical Church .

Under a decree issued in May 2002, other groups are permitted to worship but must first register with the authorities in Asmara and last year the government said it was close to approving the Seventh Day Adventist church.