Historic City of Stone-Hewn Churches Re-Opens to Pilgrims Barred by War

By Lisa Vives, Global Information Network

NEW YORK (IDN) — A World Heritage Site and Ethiopia’s holy city of Lalibela is welcoming pilgrims once again. Throngs of Ethiopians recently flooded the streets of the town caught up in the fighting between the government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.

Ethiopia’s Orthodox Christians celebrate the birth of Christ on January 7.

“When I heard the town was freed, I decided to celebrate Christmas in Lalibela and also wanted to fulfil my pact with God,” Hailu Abera told the news service France 24.

Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed in November 2020 sent the army to oust the TLPF from the holy city, accusing the region’s dissident ruling party of staging attacks on army camps. Last August, UNESCO, in an open letter, expressed “deep concern” about the reported expansion of the conflict to Lalibela with its 12th-century icons and famed stone-hewn churches.

“UNESCO calls for the respect of all relevant obligations under international law in ensuring the protection of the Outstanding Universal Value and legacy of this precious site by refraining from any act that may expose it to damage, and by taking all necessary precautions to prevent any attempts of looting and pillaging cultural properties located in the area.

The 11 medieval monolithic cave churches of this 13th-century ‘New Jerusalem’ are in a mountainous region near a traditional village with circular-shaped dwellings.

Lalibela’s rock-hewn churches were inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 1978.

Elsewhere in Ethiopia, the journalist, blogger, and politician Eskinder Nega has been pardoned and released from prison. Nega had been sentenced on July 13, 2012, to 18 years behind bars for violating anti-terrorism laws after he criticized the government for arresting journalists and anti-government activists.

He was jailed for almost seven years at Kaliti Prison in Addis Ababa, where political prisoners are housed with criminals and family visits are extremely limited and detained for over a year in a maximum-security prison in the capital.

His struggle for the right to freedom of expression was recognized by the PEN writers’ group with their Freedom to Write Award. He also received the International Press Institute’s World Press Freedom Hero award in 2017.

Eskinder has also been a columnist for the U.S.-based news forum EthioMedia, which was also banned in Ethiopia. He continued to publicly call for an end to political corruption and repression despite being harassed and denied a license to practice journalism.

His release comes as the Ethiopian government has pardoned numerous political prisoners—an effort to initiate a “national dialogue” after a year of civil war with forces from the Tigray region. [IDN-InDepthNews – 11 January 2022]

Photo: Rock-Hewn Churches, Lalibela (Ethiopia) © Ko Hon Chiu Vincent

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