REPORTS of a massacre of 750 people in the cathedral complex that reputedly houses the Ark of the Covenant have emerged from the Tigray region of Ethiopia.
Accounts have come from those who fled the town of Aksum and walked more than 200km to the regional capital, Mekelle.
The massacre was first reported in dispatches from the Belgium-based NGO European External Programme with Africa (EEPA). The area is sealed off to journalists, but many reports of massacres have nevertheless emerged, some of which have been documented by Amnesty International.
The 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 massacre had reported that the attack began after Ethiopian federal troops and Amhara militia approached the Church of St Mary of Zion.
Up to 1000 people were believed to be sheltering in the church complex. One of the chapels, the Chapel of the Tablet, is believed by Ethiopian Christians to contain the Ark of the Covenant, which is hidden from the view of everyone, apart from a single priest who never leaves the compound.
Mr 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 Mr Plaut said that the Ark is likely to have been hidden before troops arrived, although it has not been possible to confirm this.
The Ark is believed by Ethiopian Orthodox Christians to have 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 (News, 20 November 2020). 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.
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 near by was also damaged in the attack, and the government has pledged that it will also repair it.
EEPA reported that, after the shelling, the mosque had been looted by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops, 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 (News 1 January). 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.