Detained Eritrean orthodox ex-leader appears at mass
The former head of Eritrea's Orthodox church made his first public appearance on Sunday since being put under house arrest a decade ago, according to a London-based religious rights group.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) said in a statement that former patriarch Abune Antonios took part in a mass at a cathedral in the Eritrean capital Asmara, his first since the notoriously repressive government of the Horn of Africa nation put him under house arrest in 2007.
CSW said the 90-year-old religious leader was stripped of his role as head of the country's Orthodox church in 2006 after he refused to excommunicate 3,000 government opponents and called for the release of political prisoners.
His case has attracted criticism from rights groups, the European parliament and the French and American governments, who view his detention as a violation of religious freedom.
"It is encouraging to hear that Patriarch Antonios was able to participate in a Mass after a decade of incommunicado incarceration," CSW's chief executive Mervyn Thomas said, adding that it remains unclear if his appearance means his house arrest is over.
"Our profound hope is that the patriarch is finally free and will be reinstated unconditionally."
Eritrea is among Africa's poorest countries and the government of President Isaias Afwerki is seen by international observers as one of the continent's most oppressive.
Along with running a one-party state that routinely jails dissidents and hasn't held an election since independence from Ethiopia in 1993, Afwerki's regime closely manages how the country's six million people worship in a bid to maintain national unity.
Half of the country is Muslim while the other half is Christian, and only four religious denominations are officially allowed: Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, and the Orthodox Church, which has ancient roots in Eritrea.
Even though Eritrean Orthodox leaders appointed a new patriarch who died in 2015, Antonios is still seen by the leaders of the Egypt-based Coptic Orthodox Church as the legitimate head of Eritrea's denomination.