Famous monastery in Ethiopia destroyed, looted amid ongoing violence: reports

The Abuna Aregawi house in the Debre Damo Monastery overlooks a cliff in Tigray, Ethiopia. | Wikimedia Commons/Fabian Lambeck

A historic monastery in Ethiopia has allegedly been looted, bombed and destroyed while one monk was reportedly killed amid ongoing violence in Tigray, the nation's war-torn northern region. 

According to reports, treasures located inside the Debre Damo Monastery, such as ancient manuscripts, were allegedly looted by troops from neighboring Eritrea who are allied with the Ethiopian National Defense Force. 

The historic house of worship dates back to the sixth century and contains painted ceilings and walls. It is believed to have been founded by one of the Nine Saints of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The monastery can only be reached after climbing up an 80-foot cliff.

A situation report from the Europe External Programme with Africa published Monday stated that the monastery is “destroyed.” 

“After it had been bombed, reportedly by Eritrean troops, Eritrean troops climbed onto the 6th century monastery and looted old manuscripts and treasures,” the report explains.“The houses and buildings on top of the flat mountain are completely destroyed.”

A follow-up report from the Europe External Programme with Africa stated Tuesday that there were "further confirmations that the 6th century Monastery of Debre Damo was bombarded by artillery."

"One monk was killed and twelve buildings destroyed," the updated report explained. "Following the bombardment of Debre Damo, six Eritrean soldiers climbed up the 80ft rift onto the plateau and searched the sacred monastery and its buildings."

According to the United Kingdom-based newspaper The Times, the other buildings that have been "completely destroyed” include monks' ancient dwellings. The outlet reported that some claim the attacks to be "cultural cleansing" in the heritage-rich region laden with valuable artifacts. 

Aid organizations working in the East African country say they are “preparing for the worst” after months of conflict between state forces and regional fighters in Tigray that has yielded thousands of deaths. 

Scores of women and girls have been raped, authorities say. The turmoil has left tens of thousands at risk of starvation.  

“The reports coming from the Tigray region of Ethiopia are incredibly concerning,” Amy Lamb, communications director for Open Doors USA, told The Christian Post in an email Wednesday.

Open Doors works with churches and ministry partners in over 60 countries to spread awareness of believers' persecution and struggles in those areas. 

“Open Doors’ contacts in the region have reported that religious minorities, including Christians, are targeted because they belong to ethnic groups who are suffering in the violent conflict,” Lamb explained.

The nation rose to No. 36 on the Open Doors USA 2021 World Watch List in large part because of increased violence toward Christians, she said. 

 "Last year, at least 10 Christians in the country were killed for faith-related reasons. Around 100 Christian buildings were attacked or looted,” Lamb added. “Ethiopia has also become a hotspot for covid-19 relief discrimination, where Christians are purposefully excluded from receiving aid. We expect these rising patterns of persecution to continue in the coming year, so we’re calling for Christians in the U.S. to pray and advocate for the church in Ethiopia.”

According to Scottish-based charity Mary’s Meals, which has a presence in the beleaguered region, millions are at risk of starvation and lack access to medical care and proper sanitation.  

“The region’s capital, Mekelle, is being overwhelmed by displaced and traumatized people arriving every day,” the charity warned on its website. “Many are unaccompanied children who have lost their parents.”

The latest attacks have come on the heels of considerable violence that began in November. 

Last month, hundreds of people were reportedly killed at the Church of St. Mary of Zion (Maryum Tsiyon) in Aksum, which is said to house the Ark of the Covenant described in the Book of Exodus in the Bible.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide is also condemning the violence and human rights violations and urges the United Nations to take action. 

“The UN Security Council should act to ensure an immediate cessation of hostilities and unimpeded access to Tigray for local and international aid agencies. The imposition of an arms embargo on all warring parties, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which is alleged to have provided drones, would be an important initial step," wrote Kiri Kankhwende, press and public affairs team leader for CSW, in an email to CP Wednesday.

"Additionally, an urgent session of the Human Rights Council (HRC) must be convened, with a view towards mandating an independent inquiry into alleged human rights violations in Tigray and securing justice.  The US, EU, Canada United Kingdom and nations with similar domestic legislation can assist further by imposing sanctions on the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea, who bear ultimate responsibility for any human rights violations that are being committed with impunity by their forces.”

The fighting began in Tigray on Nov. 4 when the region’s ruling political party Tigray People’s Liberation Front captured the Northern Command army base in Mekelle as part of an uprising. 

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed then ordered a military offensive soon thereafter and claimed later that month that the Ethiopian National Defense Force had regained “full command” of the city.

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