Eleven unique churches carved out of solid rock 900 years ago have come under threat from a renewed civil war in Ethiopia. Fresh fighting between the Ethiopian army and a local militia in the northern Amhara region raised concerns among residents for the safety of the historic rock-hewn churches in the holy town of Lalibela.
News agency AFP has reported government troops have retaken control of Lalibela in their fight against the Fano militia who recently over-ran Lalibela and Gondar, the second-biggest city in the Amhara region, in Ethiopia’s most serious security crisis since a two-year civil war in neighbouring Tigray ended a year ago.
Fano fighters battled alongside the army during the war in Tigray, but relations between the two sides have soured this year, particularly after the federal government moved in April to integrate security forces operated by each region into the police and army.
Sight Magazine reports that during fighting in Lalibela this month, Ethiopian soldiers fired heavy weapons 11 times from locations near the churches, sending damaging shockwaves through one of the subterranean monuments, which date back to the 12th and 13th Centuries. “The vibrations are affecting the churches,” a local deacon said, requesting anonymity for fear of reprisals for comments.
Lidetu Ayalew, an Amhara politician based in the United States who grew up near Lalibela, feared the churches could be struck and destroyed. “The churches risk being struck by artillery and destroyed due to careless firing of heavy weapons,” he warned. Initial checks indicated no direct hits on the churches which will be examined for cracks caused by the vibration of weapons.
The 11 medieval cave churches were carved out of monolithic blocks to form a “New Jerusalem”, after Muslim conquests halted Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land, according to the United Nations, which designated them as a world heritage site in 1978.