Up to two million Ethiopians are facing starvation amid intense fighting between the government and rebel groups in the northern part of that country. Fighting increased last week in the Tigray region, spurring reports of a bloody massacre at a church in the Ethiopian city of Aksum that killed over 700 people.
For more than 2,000 years, Ethiopians have believed their country holds one of the most sacred relics in all of Judeo-Christian history – the Ark of the Covenant. In the city of Aksum, a special church known as the Church of St. Mary of Zion is where the ark is said to have rested for hundreds of years. Adventurer and Historian Bob Cornuke has explored the region extensively.
"The Ethiopians claim the Ark was brought to Aksum about 800 years ago and placed in this specially-constructed church for safekeeping," Cornuke told CBN News. "Only one man, known as the guardian, is allowed inside that church to watch over the Ark. So this is a very special and sacred place for Ethiopian Christians."
Heavy fighting between a regional militia and the Ethiopian Army has been raging in this area since November, and the city of Aksum has been at the center of the conflict. Tragedy struck last week as Ethiopian Christians gathered in Aksum to celebrate one of the most important holidays in Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, the annual festival of Timkat.
Cornuke explained, "Timkat is the festival of the Epiphany, and they celebrate it every January with dancing and all-night prayer vigils. But this year things went terribly wrong."
Up to a thousand worshippers surrounded the ancient church which is said to house the Ark of the Covenant when Ethiopian troops approached and, according to eyewitnesses, opened fire. More than 700 Ethiopian Christians were said to have been killed, though confirmation of the attack has been difficult because the area is closed to journalists.
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UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said the broader crisis is huge. "We estimate that 2.3 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance in Tigray including 1.3 million children," Dujarric said. "Localized fighting and insecurity continues."
"Access to most parts of northwestern and eastern and central Tigray remains constrained due to the ongoing insecurity and bureaucratic hurdles," Dujarric said.
The fighting has led to a massive wave of refugees fleeing across the nearby border into Sudan. Aid agencies there warn mass starvation is a real factor if the world doesn't act soon. Incoming refugees report almost daily massacres by both sides as well as mass rapes and other human rights abuses. Humanitarian aid organizations on the ground are calling the situation "urgent."
Joe Biden's pick for Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, called for US engagement in his recent confirmation hearing.
"Ethiopia: I share your deep concerns. We've seen a number of deeply, deeply concerning actions taken including atrocities," Blinken said. "We need to see restoration of communication, we need access for humanitarian assistance in the region, and I worry as well that what started there has the potential to be destabilizing throughout the horn of Africa."
The Ethiopian government denies the atrocities and both sides are claiming victory in the conflict, but the UN says there is plenty of blame to go around.
Elizabeth Throssell, the spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), said, "We have received consistent information pointing to violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law by all parties to the conflict – including artillery strikes on populated areas, the deliberate targeting of civilians, extrajudicial killings and widespread looting."
No matter which side actually wins the conflict, the losers will be the people of this region, as more than 1,000 refugees per day flee into makeshift camps across the Sudanese border, just hoping to survive.