Eritrean Orthodox Christian patriarch dies: government

Abune Dioskoros, leader of Eritrea's Orthodox Church, has died, the government says (AFP Photo/Nicolas Germain) (AFP)

Nairobi (AFP) - The leader of Eritrea's Orthodox Church, whose predecessor, rights groups say, was dismissed and placed under house arrest, has died, the government said Tuesday.

Religion is a particularly sensitive topic in Eritrea, where the government wants national unity among its six million people, half of whom are Muslim and the other half Christian, according to official figures.

The Orthodox Church, which has ancient roots in Eritrea, is one of four approved religions, including Roman Catholicism, Protestantism and Islam.

"The fourth Patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church, His holiness Abune Dioskoros, passed away... following a long illness," the Ministry of Information said in a statement.

"The Patriarch had been receiving treatment both at home and abroad in the recent months."

In a controversial succession Dioskoros' predecessor, Abune Antonios, was removed from his post in January 2007 and placed under house arrest, according to rights groups. He has not been seen in public since.

Antonios was still recognised as the Church's legitimate head by the Coptic Orthodox headquarters in the Egyptian city of Alexandria.

Antonios reportedly criticised state interference in Church activities, a claim vehemently denied by the government.