750 people massacred in Aksum Orthodox church complex in Ethiopia

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The Chapel of the Tablet, St Mary of Zion, Aksum, in Tigray.

As many as 750 people were massacred in an Orthodox cathedral complex that reputedly houses the ‘Ark of the Covenant’ in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, in mid-December, the monthly report of Belgium-based nonprofit European External Programme with Africa (EEPA), released on January 9, said.

Accounts have come from those who fled the town of Aksum and walked more than 200km to the regional capital, Mekelle.

The massacre of 750 people was first reported in dispatches from the EEPA. However, the area is sealed off to journalists, but many reports of the massacre have nevertheless emerged. The Amnesty International has documented some of the incidents.

Former BBC World Service Africa editor and Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, Martin Plaut, said that those who escaped the Aksum massacres had reported that the attack began after Ethiopian federal troops and Amhara militia approached the Church of St Mary of Zion, the UK’s Church Times reported.

1,000 people sheltered in church complex

Up to 1,000 people were believed to be sheltering in the church complex. One of the chapels, the Chapel of the Tablet, the Ethiopian Christians believe to contain the ‘Ark of the Covenant’ is hidden from the view of everyone, apart from a single priest who never leaves the compound.

Plaut said: “People were worried about the safety of the Ark, and when they heard troops were approaching feared they had come to steal it. All those inside the cathedral were forced out into the square.”

EEPA’s latest dispatch on the situation in Tigray, on Tuesday, reports that 750 people were shot in Aksum, although this has not been verified. It says that the massacre was carried out by Ethiopian federal troops and Amhara militia.

The Church is not thought to have been damaged, and Plaut said that the Ark is likely to have been hidden before troops arrived, although it has not been possible to confirm this.

Ark of Covenant

Ethiopian Orthodox Christians believe that the Ark has been hidden in Aksum by Menelik I, the son of King Solomon of Israel. The kingdom of Aksum was one of the four great powers of the ancient world, and the town of Aksum is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Fighting broke out in Tigray in November, after the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed, sent federal troops, supported by militia and troops from Eritrea, to fight the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which he accused of holding illegitimate elections. The TPLF was part of the governing coalition of Ethiopia until 2019.

The government declared that the conflict was over after it captured Mekelle, in late November. But the TPLF continues to fight a guerrilla war.

Ethiopian government admits shelling

Meanwhile, the Ethiopian government has admitted shelling an ancient mosque in Tigray, and has promised to repair it. The al-Nejashi mosque in northern Tigray was hit by shells, and its dome, minaret, and ancient tombs, reputedly of 15 disciples of the Prophet Muhammad, were damaged. A church nearby was also damaged in the attack, and the government has pledged that it will also repair it.

EEPA reported that, after the shelling, Ethiopian and Eritrean troops had looted the mosque, and that some civilians had died trying to protect it.

Humanitarian aid has been unable to get to the region, despite pleas from the United Nations, which estimates that 2.3 million children have been cut off from food and aid. More than one million people have been displaced by the fighting, and more than 50,000 have fled into Sudan. There are also concerns for the safety of many Eritrean refugees in camps in Tigray.

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