Reports are suggesting at least 900 people, including priests and other church leaders, have been killed in the Tigray region in Ethiopia following deliberate attacks on churches.
Earlier this month, a Belgium-based non-profit organisation – European External Programme with Africa – reported that 750 people who were hiding in Orthodox Maryam Tsiyon Church (The Church of Our Lady Mary of Zion) in Aksum were brought out and shot in the square.
Speaking to Christian charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), an anonymous source said: “I heard there were 1,000 people in the church. It might be that more were injured and died later. 750 were killed for sure.”
“In Aksum, there is the Ark of the Covenant. Maybe the people were there protecting the Ark and…they were taken outside and shot,” he continued.
Last November, an armed conflict between the Tigray Peoples' Liberation Front (TPLF) and the central government emerged after Ethiopian Nobel-prize winner Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military offensive in response to an attack on a federal institution.
The two governments now regard each other as illegitimate.
The ACN source stressed this political conflict has led to the deaths of so many Christians and Muslims but added that the violence was not motivated by religion.
“Frankly, the problem is that Eritrean troops have been involved from the beginning,” he said. “The government has denied this but those who are doing the killing are Eritrean troops in eastern and north-western Tigray."
The conflict is also causing severe destruction to Ethiopia’s cultural heritage, as 13th-century manuscripts housed by churches and mosques are reportedly being stolen or burnt. In an open letter, professors from the Centre for Ethiopian and Eritrean studies in the University of Hamburg raised concerns over the security of the heritage treasures.
The letter reads: “There are reports of looting of manuscripts from Tigrayan churches and monasteries, and warnings that they will sooner or later be taken out of Ethiopia to be sold at antiquities markets in other countries.
“It is beyond any doubt that the conflict is causing heavy damage to the cultural heritage, but since most communication lines remain cut off and the information coming from the region is minimal, it is difficult to assess the real scope of the losses
“We appeal to all colleagues to assist, where necessary, in measures for restitution of the cultural property and assessing the damage inflicted upon it.”
The church of Maryam Dengelat, the monastery of Dabra Abbay, the monastery of Dabra Dammo, and St Mary Cathedral in Aksum (the city of Aksum itself is entered in the UNESCO World Heritage List) are also believed to be in danger.