By Lisa Vives
Lalibela, a holy site for Ethiopian Orthodox Christians and home to 13th century rock-hewn churches—a world heritage site—has been caught between the warring forces of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) and the central government in Addis Ababa, according to reports from the region.
In a statement issued by the UN agency UNESCO, Lalibela’s historic role as a place of pilgrimage, devotion and peace was underscored. “It should not be a place for instigating violence and conflict,” their statement read.
UNESCO defines its mission as promoting world peace and security through the arts and sciences. They expressed their profound concern for the fate of the site should it be vandalized by military forces.
The 11 medieval monolithic cave churches of this 13th-century ‘New Jerusalem’ are situated in a mountainous region in the heart of Ethiopia near a traditional village with circular-shaped dwellings. Lalibela is a high place of Ethiopian Christianity, still today a place of pilgrimage and devotion.
The UNESCO statement read: “We call for the respect of all relevant obligations under international law in ensuring the protection of the Outstanding Universal Value and legacy of this precious site by refraining from any act that may expose it to damage, and by taking all necessary precautions to prevent any attempts of looting and pillaging cultural properties located in the area.”
Eyewitnesses told Reuters that armed men speaking Tigrinya, the ethnic Tigray language, entered Lalibela, when residents typically speak Amharic, one day after forces from the nation’s central government reportedly fled the night before.
This latest development follows increasing territorial gains made by the TPLF since June, after recapturing the Tigrayan regional capital, Mekelle, and forcing federal troops to pull back. The Tigrayan rebels are believed to have taken control without gunfire, but some local residents have fled and there are concerns over the safety of the historic churches.
Among the historic rock carvings is the monolithic church of Bet Medhane Alem (Church of the World Savior). “This is the world’s heritage, and we must cooperate to guarantee that this treasure is preserved,” Mandefro Tadesse, the deputy mayor of Lalibela, told the BBC.
Since the TPLF seized control of Mekelle, fighting has spread across northern Ethiopia to the Amhara and Afar region. The war has led to a worsening humanitarian situation that has pushed approximately 400,000 people into famine conditions and put an estimated 100,000 children at risk of acute malnutrition in the next year. More than two million people have been displaced and millions more are dependent on food and humanitarian aid for survival.
“We call on all parties to the conflict to end the violence,” US State Department spokesman Ned Price told CNN, urging both sides to “protect this cultural heritage.”