Fate of Lalibela Rock Churches Raises Concerns Among US Ethiopians

TPLF forces have taken control of one of Christianity’s oldest heritage sites.

The fate of the ancient rock-hewn churches of northern Ethiopia has become a grave concern for Ethiopian Americans, as a civil war between the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Tigray rebels imperil the fate of many religious sites across the country.

For months, Ethiopian troops have fought a rebellion by the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which began after TPLF forces attacked an Ethiopian military installation in early November 2020. Tensions had risen after Ahmed’s government withheld funds for elections held in Tigray province in defiance of federal COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings.

In recent weeks, the TPLF forces have captured the town of Lalibela, in the northern Amhara region, the site of a cluster of some of Christianity’s oldest houses of worship. The Lalibela churches were carved by medieval Ethiopian Christians as an alternative pilgrimage site to Jerusalem, whose geography the complex loosely follows.

“The recent military intrusion of the TPLF into Lalibela threatens the home of the ‘New Bethlehem,’ where 11 rock-hewn churches built in the 12th century are still places of worship today,” said a longtime analyst of the region.

The churches are also a favorite with foreign tourists to Ethiopia. “We call on the TPLF to protect this cultural heritage. We also call on all parties to the conflict to end the violence,” the State Department said in a statement following the seizure of Lalibela on August 5.

The churches were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1978. Ironically, that designation came during the height of the Ethiopian Civil War, which pitted a number of rebel groups against the Communist dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam.

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