UNESCO Must Protect Ethiopian Churches
From one region to another, the civil war that began in November 2020 continues in Ethiopia. This time, abuses and destruction are taking place in Amhara, a region that is predominantly Orthodox Christian. The historic monolithic churches of Lalibela, inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, are seriously threatened.
The Ethiopian government takes no precautions during the clashes against Amhara militias. The ECLJ had already denounced the attack by the army on the very ancient and historic Debre-Elias Monastery in May 2023, which resulted in 570 deaths and injuries.
Today, the threat looms over the eleven churches of Lalibela, carved out of rock in the 12th and 13th centuries, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1978. The Fano (informal Amhara militias composed of citizen-volunteers) have seized the city, before the federal army regained control on November 9, 2023.
According to the testimony of a deacon present, the churches have not suffered "direct damage," "but they will need to be inspected," to verify that "the vibrations (caused by the detonations) have not amplified existing cracks or created new ones."
It is the responsibility of UNESCO to intervene to ensure the protection of this priceless heritage, emblematic of Ethiopian culture and which usually attracts pilgrims and international tourists.
On November 14, 2023, the ECLJ therefore sent a letter to the Director-General of UNESCO, Ms. Audrey Azoulay:
We ask you to act in accordance with your mandate for the protection of the churches of Lalibela and to call for their preservation. Your action is essential to mobilize a global response.
The increasing persecution of Ethiopian Christians
Furthermore, we deplored in the letter "the situation of Orthodox Christians in Ethiopia, who are facing growing persecution." In September 2023, the ECLJ had submitted a written statement to the United Nations Human Rights Council to denounce serious human rights violations against the Amhara people.
In November 2022, the peace treaty signed between the federal government and the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF) insurgents excluded the Amhara militias. However, these militias had participated alongside the federal army in its war in Tigray that began in November 2020. This war in Tigray, the deadliest in recent years, has claimed hundreds of thousands of victims—estimated at 600,000 by the African Union (AU).
Excluded from the peace treaty, many Amhara militias refused to be integrated into the federal army and police, arguing that it would make them vulnerable to attacks from neighboring Tigray—their historical rivals for land and power in Ethiopia. This concern is further heightened by the threat from the Oromo Liberation Army, a rebel group in the nearby Oromo region, known for perpetrating numerous civilian massacres. Since then, these militias have been hiding in the mountains and villages and using their weapons to raid government and military posts.
The ECLJ continues its commitment to peace in Ethiopia. We will soon publish a report on the persecution faced by Amhara people. We fully intend to continue our advocacy work at the United Nations, despite the non-renewal in October 2023 of its commission tasked with investigating possible crimes against humanity.