Ethiopian Christians are voicing their concerns with plans to build a mosque in the ancient city of Aksum, a town that they claim holds the biblical Ark of the Covenant.
Aksum, an ancient kingdom that is now part of Ethiopia’s northern Tigray Region, has long been claimed by the Ethiopian Orthodox Church to be the resting place of the Ark of the Covenant from the Old Testament.
The ark is a gold chest that carries the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. The church claims that the Covenant is being guarded at Our Lady Mary of Zion cathedral.
Although Orthodox Christians have declared Aksum to be a sacred town, Muslim groups are campaigning to build a mosque in Aksum. The plans have drawn the ire of the community’s Christians leaders.
Godefa Merha, a senior cleric at Our Lady Mary of Zion, told BBC that if churches are banned in Islam’s holy site, mosques should not be allowed to exist in Aksum. Merha asserted that the city itself is a “monastery.”
"Aksum is our Mecca," Merha argued. "Aksum is a holy place.”
Merha explained that although Christians and Muslims live in peace in Aksum, he believes Orthodox Christians will never break the oath passed down from their ancestors to preserve the “sanctity” of Aksum.
"If anyone comes to build a mosque, we will die,” he contended. “It has never been allowed, and we will not allow it to happen in our age. For us it's death. We must live respecting each other the way we have been living for centuries."
The Orthodox Christians believe that only Christian hymns and prayers should be heard within the city.
"Religions that do not accept Christ's birth, baptism, crucifixion, death and his second coming cannot exist in a place where there is the Ark of the Covenant,” preacher Amsale Sibuh told reporter Hana Zeratsyon. “If anybody does anything against this, we will pay with our life."
However, Muslims in Aksum say it's their right to build a mosque in the town and use loudspeakers to issue their prayers, as is common with many mosques throughout the world.
Today, Muslims comprise about 10 percent of Aksum’s population, BBC reports. Meanwhile, Orthodox Christians comprise the majority of the town.
However, the absence of mosques in Aksum has forced the town’s Muslims to set up temporary mosques in homes or conduct their prayers out in the open.
"We have 13 temporary mosques. On Friday, if they [some Christians] hear us using loudspeakers, they say we are denigrating St. Mary," Muslim resident Abdu Mohammed Ali, who says his family has had to rent Christian homes to provide Muslims with a place to worship in Aksum, told the news outlet.
Aziz Mohammed told BBC that Christians do not prohibit Muslims from praying. But after years of praying in the street, he stressed the Muslim community needs a mosque.
Zeratsyon reports that the mosque issue is causing tension between the two religious communities. As an Orthodox Christian, she noted that Abdu Mohammed was reluctant to speak with her.
"Here you live fearing each other,” Aziz Mohammed was quoted as saying.
According to Zeratsyon, a council of local Muslim leader is hoping to hold discussions with Christian leaders about the possibility of opening a mosque in the town.
BBC reports that a similar mosque issued flared up in the nearby predominantly Christian town of Wukiro-Maray about five decades ago when Ethiopia’s then-Emporer reached a compromise that led to the construction of a mosque.
Today, there are five mosques in Wukiro-Maray.
While there are different claims about what happened with the Ark of the Covenant, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church maintains that the Ark has been in Ethiopia ever since the son of Queen Sheba and King Solomon brought the Ark there from Jerusalem over 3,000 years ago.
"It's no claim, it's the truth," Patriarch Abune Paulos told Smithsonian magazine in 2007. “It's been in Ethiopia ever since."
Even as the leader of the Orthodox Church, Paulos said that he had never even seen the Ark because only one person — the guardian of the ark — has that “peerless honor.”
The guardian does not let historians and researchers investigate the ark for authenticity.
Smithsonian writer Paul Raffaele visited the ark guardian during his trip to Aksum. However, Raffaele was seemingly disappointed by the answers he got from the tight-lipped guardian.
"I can't tell you anything about it," Raffaele quoted the guardian. "No king or patriarch or bishop or ruler can ever see it, only me. This has been our tradition since Menelik brought the ark here more than 3,000 years ago."
Paulos, who died in 2012, said that the ark had not been continuously held in Aksum since Menelik brought it from Jerusalem. He said that it was moved by monks and hidden for over 400 years to be kept safe from invaders.