THE United Nations has raised the alarm about the fate of the 13th-century rock-hewn churches of Lalibela, in northern Ethiopia, after the area was captured by Tigrayan rebels.
Labilela, in the Amhara Region, designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1978, is a holy site for millions of Orthodox Christians.
Conflict between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the Ethiopian army and its allies has been raging for nine months, and has now spilled over into neighbouring Tigray, including Amhara and Afar.
UNESCO expressed its “deep concern” after the news that rebels had taken Lalibela. It called for “the respect of all relevant obligations under international law in ensuring the protection of the Outstanding Universal Value and legacy of this precious site by refraining from any act that may expose it to damage, and by taking all necessary precautions to prevent any attempts of looting and pillaging cultural properties located in the area.
“Lalibela is a place of pilgrimage, devotion and peace: it should not be a place for instigating violence and conflict. The 11 medieval monolithic cave churches of this 13th-century ‘New Jerusalem’ are located in a mountainous region in the heart of Ethiopia near a traditional village with circular-shaped dwellings. Lalibela Rock-Hewn Churches is a high place of Ethiopian Christianity.”
The churches were originally built as a substitute destination for pilgrims who were unable to reach the Holy Land. They are cared for by priests from the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.
The deputy mayor of Labilela told the BBC that the town’s residents had fled in advance of the TPLF’s arrival.
The TPLF previously ran Ethiopia as part of a coalition, until Abiy Ahmed came to power in 2018. Fighting between TPLF loyalists and government forces broke out in Tigray last November, and the conflict has continued to escalate. In June, TPLF fighters retook the Tigrayan regional capital, Mekelle.
The UN estimates that the fighting has left 400,000 people facing famine, and another 1.8 million people on the brink of famine.
The United States has called on the TPLF to protect the World Heritage Site.
The TPLF has dismissed concerns about the churches. Its spokesman, Getachew Reda, said: “We know what it means to protect heritage sites. Lalibela is our heritage site as well. They shouldn’t worry about our forces protecting or not protecting Lalibela.”
The government has recently called on “all capable Ethiopians” to join the fight against the TPLF, sparking fears that the regional conflict will escalate into all-out war.
Amnesty International this week published a report describing the widespread sexual abuse, including rape, of women and girls in Tigray during the conflict. The report is based on the accounts of 63 women and medical professionals, and it details how women have been subjected to rape, sexual slavery, and torture by members of Ethiopian National Defence Force, the Eritrean Defence Forces who are allied to the Ethiopian government forces, and Amhara militia fighters.
Amnesty International’s secretary-general, Dr Agnès Callamard, said: “It’s clear that rape and sexual violence have been used as a weapon of war to inflict lasting physical and psychological damage on women and girls in Tigray. Hundreds have been subjected to brutal treatment aimed at degrading and dehumanising them.”
She called on the UN and the African Union to bring about an end to the conflict.