Tigray: Why are soldiers attacking religious heritage sites?
There are reports of Ethiopian and Eritrea troops going out of their way to loot and destroy beloved churches, mosques and monasteries.
In Ethiopia, it is customary for large crowds to gather on the last week of November at the country’s holiest site, the Church of St Mary of Zion in Axum. Every year, followers of the ancient Ethiopian Orthodox faith, who constitute roughly 60% of the population, join each other to celebrate the presence of the Ark of the Covenant in what is one of Ethiopia’s most important religious festivities.
This November, however, the Church of St Mary of Zion was crowded for a different reason. A week earlier, Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers had arrived in Axum as part of the federal government’s war with the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF). By 28 November, two days before festivities would normally have begun, many people had gathered in the church to find refuge, worship, and protect what is believed to be the Ark of the Covenant from being stolen. According to a deacon at the church, soldiers burst into the church, dragging worshippers out and shooting at people as they tried to escape. The witness estimated that 800 people were massacred that weekend at the church and in the city.
An Amnesty International report based on over 60 interviews described how: “Over an approximately 24-hour period on 28-29 November, Eritrean soldiers deliberately shot civilians on the street and carried out systematic house-to-house searches, extrajudicially executing men and boys”.
As well as attacking people, there is also evidence of soldiers engaging in widespread looting, including of religious heritage sites both in Axum and more widely in Tigray. A recent report from the Europe External Programme with Africa describes how “Eritrean troops climbed onto the 6th century [Debre Damo] monastery and looted old manuscripts and treasures”. Despite the information blackout, reports and images have also emerged of soldiers damaging many other important sites, from several ancient churches to the 7th century Wukro al-Nejashi mosque, one of the world’s oldest and most important Islamic sites.
Why would the Ethiopian authorities allow for the assault on sites that are holy not just for Tigrayans but for many across the country? The first possible reason is that it is part of a scorched earth policy: everything is erased to the ground as avenging troops advance. However, this does not explain the destruction of difficult to access sites such as the Debre Damo Monastery which can only be reached by scaling 80ft cliffs. Another explanation is the economic gain of selling stolen items, but this does not explain why buildings were destroyed after the looting.
The most persuasive explanation is therefore perhaps that this strategy is aimed at humiliating and demoralising the population to break the community’s resolve and spirit. In its most extreme form, this is known in international law as cultural genocide. The intended effect is to erase people’s attachment to the land, uprooting them not only physically, but psychologically. Destroying religious sites is a powerful instrument in this approach.
This explanation would also be consistent with claims in a leaked US report which suggests that “Ethiopian officials and allied militia fighters are leading a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing in Tigray”. The document claims that Amhara militias are involved in “an apparent campaign to force out the ethnic Tigrayan population under the cover of war”.
Hope and humanitarians
It is perfectly understandable that humanitarian actors focus their emergency responses on saving lives rather than saving heritage. There are 4.5 million people in the Tigray region who urgently need food aid. However, there needs to be a distinction between what is prioritised and what is recognised. Many of whose who were allegedly massacred in the Church of Zion were there to worship and protect their religious heritage. Simply seeing them as victims of ethnic violence is reductionist and does not help to capture the full spectrum of assaults on their multiple identities.
Moreover, in supporting survivors and holding perpetrators accountable, it is essential to recognise the many ways in which people have been assaulted. The distinction of seeing humanitarians’ jobs as saving lives and heritage experts’ jobs as saving artefacts is problematic. Eyewitness evidence about who desecrated holy sites may be critical for bringing perpetrators to justice and the restoration of holy sites can be crucial to rebuilding a community’s sense of joy, pride and belonging. It gives hope for what they will pass on to future generations.
One hopes that the armed conflict in Ethiopia comes to an end soon and that both the people and sites that are dear to them are restored. Perhaps this November, the sacred Church of Zion will commemorate the dead as well as seeing the return of one of Ethiopia’s most significant religious festivities. However, this will only be possible if we recognise the importance of heritage sites both as a target in war and as a critical part of justice and restoration after it.
I read your article on this website.
It is unusual to target churches and mosques in Ethiopia by any military personnel as they pry before going to war fronts in both religions. To me although the number you mentioned need to be verified, as one person from the area said there was no mass killing, but there was a confrontation between some militia people and the army-which leads to killing people especially those armed ones and the situation was bad. But there was a ceremony this year at the church, although so many people were not traveling from all over the country as it used to be. The people at the Nov 28-29 ceremony were asked about the situation and they were witnessing for the presence of some disturbances but there was no major challenge observed, as you said massacre. This was broadcasted by Walta News Agency on Nov 28-29, 2020.
The issue of massacre was broadly occurred, which is defined by real numbers, is in Maikadra, where over a 1000 people died and killed by axes, machetes and bullets and majority of them are from the Amhara ethnic group. As a writer, you can find so many evidences, both witnesses and even graveyards at that place. Even there the army was not touching the churches.
You know the bad habit coming with the Tigray Liberation Front, TPLF, is they put artilleries inside the churches and monasteries and their soldiers shoot from the church compounds. That, makes things very difficult. This has been on air as some of the people in some areas like Korem gave witnesses that they argued the TPLF fighters to leave the churches but refused and place their artilleries in the church. The Ethiopian population is very strong and dedicated especially interms of religion. I am telling you some writers are writings wrong numbers outside of the country but the reality in the ground is different. I wish you stay until the numbers killed around the Axum churches verified, although killing one person is not being the normal behavior of a human being!
@Maria Tadros ridicilous article.
EEPA first report is widely discredited, Eritreans commited war crimes in and around Axum, but there has been no investigation regarding the alleged and ludicrious claim about killing people in Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion.
Your attempts to impliciate Amhara militia’s in this shows how uninformed you are. Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion. was built by Amhara king Fasilides, not by Tigrayans. It’s part of Amhara history and identity!
Why don’t you make a article about the international hypocrasy regarding Western Tigray. TPLF occupied this area in the early 1990 and annexed it into Tigray. This place is alien to Tigrayans, and was administered by Amharas for centuries. 30 year Tigray occupation can never erase centuries of Amhara history in Begemder. TPLF tried to erase us through mass displacement and killings. Where was the international outrage in the 90’s? Where was the international community back then?!
US turned a blind eye to the mass killings and displacement of Amharas, because they helped TPLF into power in the 1990’s.
Gondar lives, Gondar never dies!!
This is absolutely baseless claim and fail to take the reality into account. To begin with, was there any such problem before the day of the TPLF attck on National defence force? None is the answer. You fail to mention TPLF used churches and mosques as a fortress. They also do such attack on heritage sites deliberately impersonating the NDF. How about whatthwy did toAxum international airport, the Telecom and electric station?
The author of this article seems to have very little understanding of the relationship of Ethiopians with their heritage. That seems to be the reason why she comes up with wild and shifting theories. When she realizes that not much has been reported by way of lost relics, she shifts to her twisted theory of scorching earth, where everything is erased to the ground. Ethiopians have preserved their heritage for thousands of years through thick and thin. They did preserve them during the famine of 1984 and throughout so many conflict situations. They even kept them away from European predators. For lack of a better phrase,this piece is typical tabloid of the research world. Madam, this day will pass and truth will prevail and your work will be harshly judged.
Dear Dr. Tadros,
you should put a disclaimer that you have interest in Egyptian affairs as you are Egyptian origin. As you know, Egypt has been sponsoring all possible pressure on Ethiopia, not only using the known international corridors, but also all the backdoors, which includes pushing Sudan to run on Ethiopian Territory during this difficult time and arming local bandits to disrupt security along the border line. Egypt supporting the bandits in north western region of Ethiopia called Benishangul & Gumuz where a lot of killing is taking place on daily basis. Have you even asked or attempted to reach out this region why the killing is happening? Because the killing in that part of the region has been started months before Tigray crisis. Unfortunately, Egypt is using its scholars to make false allegation regarding Ethiopia. I am stunned to see you are using your good name for these kinds of cheap shot and low blow. More importantly, I am surprised to see an Egyptian, who have witnessed all kinds of human atrocities in his/her own country has the courage to point fingers on others. How do throw a stone while sitting in a house made up of glass? We all know your efforts is not because of the concern for the Tigrean people! My heart is bleeding out for the people in Tigray! They were victims of their own regional government. It is TPLF responsible for what has happened to the people. TPLF is recklessness and irresponsible when started fighting the federal Government. I have never seen a local government that takes arm against its own Federal gov to bring misery to its own people. However, I will not allow your hidden agenda of working with Egyptian government to stop the GERD in the name of human rights concern for Tigray region. Tigreans will benefit from the GERD as all Ethiopians do, but don’t use the people as a shield to advance your own agenda on the GERD. I am not sure if you are able to locate Tigray on the world map leave alone the monasteries like Debre Damo. BTW, did you know that TPLF was using Churches and Mosques for military purpose during the crises? Guns were firing on Ethiopian troops from churches and Mosques during the fights. However, you found the news on worship places very suitable to your own agenda and blew it out of proportion just like Amnesty and the western media reports prepared by a remote control. If you are interested to write about Ethiopia, and particularly about Tigray, please show up on the ground and see the reality on the ground. These kinds of low and false allegations will jeopardize your credibility although Ethiopians are committed to the GERD and fill-in the water! That is inevitable no matter what the Egypt media or scholar say.
Going back to Axum, I know two facts so far. First, the Ethiopian government was fully controlling the place since November 18, 2020 and I saw local media were interviewing residents in the street of Axum. The government was controlling the Axum since Nov 18 and logic of new fight on November 18 doesn’t make when TPLF was on disarray and running away from most of the towns in Tigray. Second, the key witness on Amnesty’s report was deceiving the world with false allegation. He was a person located in Boston, a diehard TPLF supporter, never been in Axum that day and never been an orthodox priest in the first place. Please see my link below although there is many information out there about the guy (https://www.ena.et/en/?p=22049).
Greetings, Thank. just a thought, could also one aspect be that the soldiers who are doing all this are not from the same faith and are doing this also because of historical divisions and animosities? It is claimed that also many of the soldiers of the Eritrean army come from the lowlands of SouthEastern Eritrea who also had long histories of conflicts with Tigray. Either way it is obvious that all these are a deliberate attack on all aspects of culture, history and faith. I am also saddened that all faith communities in the rest of Ethiopia seem to be so partisan and not showing any signs of compassion and concern at the targeting of innocent citizens as well as cultural artifacts. Maybe they are but one does not hear of anything, perhaps being ‘silenced ‘. There were ‘me helot tselot’ prayers recently in Addis, was there a call for peace and stopping of all the violence and atrocities everywhere?
What you have wrote is a complete biased story and complete propaganda being spewed by TPLF. You should have done your research before your comment. All sites mentioned on your comments were not looted, vandalized or targeted. Government is allowing to most areas in Tigray including Axum but British media is telling false story. Look, TPLF is rejected by 94% of the Ethiopian people that include Tigreans and they will never be back except pull back the country. I do not understand why the west is siding with brutal, old and repressive group. We have seen that for past 30 years.
The author of this article has done a great job analyzing the horrific Ethiopia circumstances. So. Thank you.
Misinformation has been used as a weapon of war in Ethiopia. In the age of information revolution, nothing will remain hidden fortunately.
There are 2 camps in Ethiopia currently:
Those who support the war
Those who vehemently deny the facts
And the 2nd camp is:
Trying to shine a light on the war
Trying to address humanitarian catastrophes that are unfolding in front of our eyes. The whole world has been working to guard civilian rights and wellbeing in a war since the 2and world war. There are international laws that protect individuals during war and not sure Ethiopians are aware of this fact….
I thank the author of this article for his objectivity, and his insight.
I urge him not to give importance to the henchman of the Erytheen regime and the criminals newly installed in Adis Ababa.
The majority of these comments are the work of people complicit in the orientation of the current leaders, the terrorist government of Asmara.
The main work is to spread lies, intimidating anyone who helps to really inform the world about what is going on in Tigray.
If there is one truth that emerges from this attempted genocide, it is the retrograde nature of most of the Ethiopian leaders, of which only the Tigray hid, and was honored throughout the world.
Mothers of families, fathers of families who appear in front of the media to spread lies, including serious facts such as gang rapes and summary executions.
We have seen diplomats lie to us, including the president himself lying to us, he would have the threat of resignation from the current president, who would have made the current government slow down.
The world in Addis universities is polluted with lies and untruth.
If Abby’s goal is to make Ethiopia a new Erytree, then he has done it.
Time always proves the truth right, sooner or later the truth will be known.
Thank you Madam and courage
Thank you for your work
6 months of blackout