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