Around 750 people were killed in an attack on an Orthodox church, which is said to contain the Ark of the Covenant described in the Book of Exodus in the Bible, in northern Ethiopia’s war-torn Tigray region — home to thousands of churches and monasteries — according to reports.
Hundreds of people hiding in Maryam Tsiyon Church in Aksum amid an armed conflict were brought out and shot to death, and local residents believe the aim was to take the Ark of Covenant to Addis Ababa, the Belgium-based nonprofit European External Programme with Africa reported in this month’s situational report, released on Jan. 9.
“The number of people killed is reported as 750,” it said. The church, the most ancient and sacred of Ethiopian Christianity and also known as the Church of St. Mary of Zion, belongs to the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.
“I’ve not heard more than rumours about the looting of the Arc from Maryam Tsion, but if it’s true that up to 750 died defending it, it is conceivable that the attackers didn’t stop there,” said Michael Gervers, a professor of history at the University of Toronto, according to The Telegraph.
“The government and the Eritreans want to wipe out the Tigrayan culture. They think they’re better than rest of the people in the country. The looting is about destroying and removing the cultural presence of Tigray,” Gervers explained.
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, the U.K.’s Church Times reported.
“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,” Plaut was quoted as saying.
About 1,000 people were believed to be in the church complex at the time of the attack. The EEPA said the massacre was carried out by Ethiopian federal troops and allied Amhara militia that are fighting the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
The church and and the Ark have likely not been damaged, Plaut added.
The fighting began in Tigray since Nov. 4 when the region’s ruling political party Tigray People’s Liberation Front captured the Northern Command army base in the regional capital Mekelle as part of an uprising, after which Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military offensive. Abiy claimed on Nov. 28 that the Ethiopian National Defense Force had regained “full command” of Mekelle.
However, humanitarian workers say the fighting continues.