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Eritrea Jails Three More Orthodox Church Leaders

Co-opted synod excommunicates 65 Medhane Alem members for ‘heresy.’

LOS ANGELES, May 19 (Compass Direct) – The Eritrean government jailed three more leaders of the Orthodox Church’s Medhane Alem renewal movement last month, cracking down on widespread reaction to the formal excommunication of 65 of the group’s members announced nearly two months ago.

The standoff began on March 28, with a circular letter sent out by the Eritrean Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod, put under de facto government control nine months ago.

Addressed to every Orthodox parish throughout the country, the letter officially excommunicated 65 key members and coordinators of Medhane Alem, a long-established Sunday School movement within the Orthodox church.

The expelled Christians reportedly had refused to confess that the Medhane Alem movement and its leaders were “heretics” whose objectives were to destroy the Eritrean Orthodox Church.

Formal excommunication from the church excludes the former member from participation in all sacraments of the church, including communion, baptism, marriage and funeral rites.

A week later, on April 4, three of the excommunicants – identified only as Samson, Michael and Naemen – were arrested and sent to prison. The three men were accused of instigating open resistance to the church’s decree banishing them from their mother church.

Dissension over three Medhane Alem priests jailed since March 2005 had caused the Asmara government to turn against Eritrean Orthodox Patriarch Abune Antonios last year.

The church’s administration was taken over last August by a government-installed layman who, contrary to Orthodox canons, then led the church’s Holy Synod in ousting Patriarch Antonios.

After keeping the elderly Antonios under strict house arrest last August, the co-opted Holy Synod notified him in January 2006 that he was no longer the head of his church.

According to Orthodox sources in Egypt , Antonios’ arbitrary dismissal was a direct violation of canonical law, which only permits a patriarch’s removal for reasons of immorality, heresy or physical/mental infirmity.

The only solution to the standoff believed to be acceptable to Coptic Orthodox Pope Shenoudah III, who ordained Patriarch Antonios, would be a joint “ecclesiastical tribunal” before representatives of the church synods of both Egypt and Eritrea , to hear the charges and allow the patriarch to defend himself.

But it remains to be seen if the regime of Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki would agree to such a hearing, independent of government interference and presumably presided over by Pope Shenoudah.

Although there has been no formal announcement of the selection of a new patriarch, the Eritrean government’s Shabait website posted a short article on April 22, referring to “His Holiness Abune Dioscoros” as “Head of the EOC [Eritrean Orthodox Church] Holy Synod.”

A photograph of the former Bishop Dioscoros, arrayed in the church’s traditional patriarchal robes, accompanied the text.