Massacre at Saint Mary of Zion Church in Axum, Ethiopia

The 17th century Saint Mary of Zion church closest to the fortified building that allegedly houses the Ark of the Covenant. Women are not allowed to enter the church but can pray towards it from a short distance. Phot. Zina Hemady

Reports are just emerging of a horrific massacre of hundreds of civilians in Ethiopia’s holiest church, almost three months after the deadly attacks. The deacon of the Church of Saint Mary of Zion, believed to house the ancient Ark of the Covenant after it disappeared from Jerusalem, and other witnesses described a horror scene of bodies littering the streets and hyenas feeding on the dead.

A priest inside the 17th century Saint Mary of Zion church closest to the fortified building that allegedly houses the Ark of the Covenant. Phot. Norbert Schiller

The killings are blamed on the Eritrean military, arch enemy of the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, which has been locked in armed conflict with the Ethiopian government since November. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, a member of the Oromo ethnic group, came to power in 2018 ending three decades of Tigrayan dominance over Ethiopian politics. Additionally, he signed a peace treaty with Eritrea which won him a Nobel Peace Prize. However, his push to impose the central government’s control over the Tigrayan areas in the north sparked tensions which eventually led to conflict. It didn’t take long for the Eritrean military to join its Ethiopian counterpart in its fight against the TPLF.

A women praying inside the new Saint Mary of Zion Church (L). Women are not aloud inside the old church where the Ark of the Covenant is kept. Religious paintings in the 17th century men-only Saint Mary of Zion church (C). A woman praying outside the church. Phot. (L&R) Zina Hemady (C) Norbert Schiller

According to the deacon, hundreds of people had flocked to the church in Axum seeking refuge from the fighting in the rural areas. That made them easy targets for the Eritrean forces who stormed into the church dragging worshipers into the street and shooting them in cold blood. At least 800 were brutally killed at Saint Mary of Zion and in the city while thousands of others in the countryside are also feared dead.

A mother holding her newly baptized baby outside the Saint Mary of Zion church in Axum, a site of great spiritual significance to most Ethiopians. Phot. Norbert Schiller

In 2018, we toured northern Ethiopia stopping in Axum and visiting the compound that houses the old and new churches known as Saint Mary of Zion. Like most of Ethiopia’s holy places, this one was full of worshipers coming to seek blessings particularly from the Virgin Mary who is closely associated with this site. Undoubtedly, the day of the massacre, those who took refuge in this holy compound were hoping for divine intervention to save them from their horrific fate.

The story in the link below is one of two articles describing northern Ethiopia, including Axum and the Church of Saint Mary of Zion, during more peaceful times. Hoping that sanity will prevail again in this beautiful land of many legends.
Ethiopia: Land of Many Legends and Dazzling Beauty (Part II)

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