In Ethiopia’s Tigray Region, Rebels Take Control of UNESCO Heritage Site

Rebel forces from Ethiopia’s Tigray region have reportedly seized the town of Lalibela, home to UNESCO-protected 12th- and 13th-century rock-hewn churches. Lalibela is located in the neighboring Amhara region in northern Ethiopia, bordering Sudan. The seizure has raised fears for the safety of the sacred site. This is the latest development in a brutal civil war that has plagued Ethiopia in the past nine months, killing tens of thousands and displacing more than 1.8 million people who are at risk of starvation.

The bloody conflict began last November when Ethiopia’s prime minister Abiy Ahmed sent army forces to suppress political dissent in the northern region of Tigray, which borders Eritrea. Since then, his government has allied with Eritrea to fight the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which ruled Ethiopia for three decades prior to Ahmed’s rise to power in 2018. Ahmed, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2019 for ending a decades-long war with Eritrea and was initially celebrated as a reformist, is now accused of holding power illegally, violently suppressing opponents, and committing war crimes. Reports from Ethiopia describe massacres, ethnic cleansing, and widespread sexual assault committed by the Ethiopian army and its allies. According to the United Nations, more than 400,000 people are currently facing famine in Tigray, an impoverished region that has long suffered from food shortages. The UN described the crisis as the “worst global famine in decades,” warning that another 1.8 million people are on the brink of starvation.

In June, the TPLF gained control of Mekelle, the capital of Tigray, and rejected a last-minute ceasefire offer from Ahmed’s government. Since then, the fighting has spilled to Amhara, where local militias are allied with the central government.

Lalibela is home to 11 medieval monolithic churches from the 12 and 13 centuries (via Wikimedia Commons)  

Now there’s fear that the fighting would risk the integrity of 11 medieval monolithic churches in Lalibela that are sacred to millions of Ethiopian Orthodox Christians and deemed a World Heritage Site. Eyewitnesses told Reuters that some residents fled the town, though the news agency said it could not independently verify these accounts. More than 250,000 people have already been forced out of their homes in neighboring areas.

Throughout the conflict, several Tigrayian heritage sites have been targeted by the central government and its allies, in acts that have been called “cultural cleansing.” In February, it was reported that Eritrean forces have committed a brutal massacre in the country’s most sacred Orthodox church, located in the Tigrayian town of Axum. Locals believe the church houses the ancient Ark of the Covenant. According to reports, 800 people were killed in the attack. In January, Eritrean forces bombed Tigray’s ancient Debre Damo monastery and looted its ancient treasures. They also destroyed and burnt more than two dozen shelter houses for monks.

When asked today about the risk facing Lalibela’s historic churches, State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters that the United States has called on the fighters to “protect this cultural heritage.”

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