Hundreds of Christians are defending an Ethiopian church believed to house the mythical Ark of the Covenant as war between soldiers and militia edges closer to the sacred site.
University lecturer Getu Mak, 32, told The Times worshippers, armed with just “cobbles and sticks”, had been “killed” while protecting “priests and the ark” at the Church of St Mary of Zion in the city of Axum.
A shocking 800 people are thought to have died so far during the conflict as Ethiopian and Eritrean soldiers battled rebel Tigrayan forces in November, but the true scale of the devastation has only just come to light.
Described in the Bible as an decorative wooden casket, the ark is believed to contain the remnants of the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments. The church has supposedly housed the fabled relic for the last 60 years.
Disturbing footage of the destruction of the Debre Abay monastery, south-west of Axum, is thought to show Ethiopian soldiers carrying out war crimes.
Surrounded by pools of blood and dozens of bodies, the video shows troops walking among dead bodies while laughing and joking.
Ethiopia’s bloody dispute has continued since Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed came to power almost three years ago.
Attacks over the last few months of fighting between Ahmed’s forces and rebel supporters of the former Tigrayan regional government has led to a reported thousands of deaths and left millions facing starvation.
Getu Mak told The Times: “When people heard the shooting, they ran to the church to give support to the priests and others protecting the ark.
“Certainly some of them were killed for doing that.”
Witness who spoke to non-governmental organisation Europe External Programme with Africa said churchgoers had only cobbles and stones to protect themselves.
Getu added that many feared the ark would be either moved to Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa or vanish completely.
Eritrean soldiers are thought to shown “no mercy” as they hunted down supporters of the rebel Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), including youngsters and old people, the day after the church massacre.
Battles over land and access to resources have resulted in internet and mobile phone networks being cut off.
The country’s leader Ahmed claimed to have defeated TPLF in November after capturing the region’s capital Mekele.
Accusations surrounding Eritrea’s involvement were initially denied, but the government later admitted “rape, plunder, callous and intentional mass killings” could occur in fighting in which “many are illegally armed”.
It also alleged rebels had left the region “vulnerable”.
About 80% of the six million people living in Tigray has no access to help or support, according to the United Nations.