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Ethiopia’s historic churches were devoid of pilgrims at Easter

Ethiopian Orthodox pilgrims

RudiErnst | Shutterstock

John Burger - published on 05/06/21 - updated on 05/31/21

COVID-19 pandemic and recent fighting in Tigray sway tourists away from Lalibela rock churches.

Fewer than 600 tourists and pilgrims have visited the historic rock-hewn churches of Lalibela in northern Ethiopia this Easter, when normally the area would see tens of thousands of visitors.

The churches reopened after a COVID-19 shutdown in time for this past weekend, when the Ethiopian Orthodox Church celebrated the Resurrection of Christ.

Priests carried out age-old traditions, including reading Scripture by candlelight on the vigil of the feast. 

“As they have done for hundreds of years on the Orthodox Easter weekend, priests wrapped in traditional white robes read the Bible by candlelight on Saturday evening in the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela in northern Ethiopia,” Reuters reported.

This year, it was not only the COVID-19 pandemic that kept people away; there was also a war in the Tigray region, which borders Amhara where Lalibela is. Even though the government declared victory there in late 2020, there has been some low-level fighting.

Lalibela’s 12th and 13th century churches constitute a UNESCO World Heritage site, and this year’s dearth of tourists has been hard on the local economy.

“Back in the good days tourists were flowing, hotels were full,” Misagnaw Tarekegn, head priest of Saint Mary church, told Reuters. “Many hotels had 300 to 400 workers. Now they are sitting at home with no income.”

“Lalibela depends on tourism: the hotels, the souvenirs, the cafés, the shops, the farmers all directly or indirectly benefit from tourism,” said Mesai Mekonnen, a local hotelier who said that before the pandemic his place typically hosted 600 guests a month. “Now everything is closed. We have no income.”

Reuters explained that Ethiopia is in the top five countries in Africa in terms of new COVID-19 infections, straining the health system. “With a population of over 110 million, the country has recorded a total of more than 258,000 infections and about 3,700 deaths,” the wire service reported.

“We are going to pray about the war in the country, the hunger in the country, the curse from God,” Priest Misganaw said. “We pray God to bring these things to an end.”

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