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Ethiopian rebels have taken control of historic rock-hewn churches


WitR | Shutterstock

Zelda Caldwell - published on 08/05/21

As residents flee the town of Lalibela, the deputy mayor raised concerns about their safety and that of these ancient churches.

Tigray rebels from northern Ethiopia have taken control of the town of Lalibela, home to the famous medieval churches carved out of rock, reported the BBC.

This is the latest rebel advance in a war between the Ethiopian army and Tigray rebel forces. Since the war began in November, millions of people have fled the region, thousands have been killed, and atrocities have reportedly been committed by both sides. 

11 churches carved out of rock

The 11 churches, which are carved out of a single piece of rock, are located in the Amhara region, adjacent to the Tigray region. 

Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978, Lalibela’s 11 churches date back to the 13th century. At a time when Muslim conquests made Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land impossible, Ethiopian King Gebre Mesqel Lalibela set out to construct the churches as part of a “New Jerusalem.”

Christianity in Ethiopia dates back to the first century A.D., and in the 4th century, it was adopted as the state religion during the reign of the ancient Aksumite emperor Ezana.

Virtually untouched since they were built, the churches remain important pilgrimage sites for the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Concern for the safety of the churches

The deputy mayor of Lalibela, Mandefro Tadesse, told the BBC that Tigray rebels had taken over the town, residents were fleeing, and that he was concerned about the safety of the churches.

“This is the world’s heritage, and we must cooperate to guarantee that this treasure is preserved,” Mr Mandefro told the BBC.

Hundreds of thousands of people in the war-ravaged region face famine in what is said to be the world’s worst hunger crisis in a decade

Delivering aid to the needy has been complicated by the Ethiopian government’s blockade of humanitarian aid to Tigray. The government has accused aid groups of arming the rebels, and have allowed only 10% of the aid targeted to the region to be delivered, according to an AP report.

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