The head of Ethiopia’s Orthodox Church has accused the government of committing genocide against the country’s northern Tigray region.
In a video reportedly recorded last month before being smuggled out of Ethiopia by US-based organisation Bridges of Hope, Patriarch Abune Mathias accused his government of wanting to “wipe the people of Tigray off the face of the earth”.
For the past six months, Ethiopia’s army, backed by militia from neighbouring Eritrea, has been battling fighters loyal to Tigray’s dissident former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front.
An internal US Government report written earlier this year and seen by the New York Times, accused forces loyal to Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of leading a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing in the region.
Fighters and officials are “deliberately and efficiently rendering Western Tigray ethnically homogeneous through the organised use of force and intimidation,” the US report said.
In a report published on 26 February, Amnesty International said that the systematic massacre of hundreds of unarmed civilians in the northern city of Axum on 28-29 November 2020 by Ethiopian and Eritrean forces may amount to a crime against humanity.
Ethiopia’s government authorities have denied genocide and said they are targeting the northernmost region’s leadership, not civilians.
The patriarch, who himself is from the Tigray region, said his earlier attempts to speak out had been censored. He told Bridges of Hope head Dennis Wadley that massacres had been carried out on church grounds and ancient Orthodox monasteries destroyed.
The BBC reported on 9 May that the Ethiopian government has responded that the patriarch's statement was "a Church matter" in which "the state does not intervene”.
Also this month, a Catholic priest, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, told Catholic Charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) United States that people in the Tigray region are “in immense suffering” and are now traumatised.
In a telephone interview with ACN US, the priest described “rampant hunger and fear” and said that children and orphans especially are suffering from neglect and starvation.
He explained that because there is no free movement, even those not directly affected by the fighting, have “no [access to] public services, not enough food, no medication, no security or trust”.
Unable to reveal his exact location due to fear of reprisals, the priest said that in his area three parish priests had been beaten and threatened and that all the parish properties had been looted by soldiers.
“Hundreds were killed,” he added.
But, despite the suffering he said the church has “never stopped doing her job” and has continued covertly arranging gatherings when it could.
He told ACN US: “God is love and beyond our comprehension in his mysterious ways. What is darkness for humanity could be light for him. What seems real death to us, for him can mean life eternal.”
The United Nations, in a report published on 7 May, said access to humanitarian groups delivering aid is impeded in much of the Tigray region due to active hostilities. An estimated 5.1 million need food aid in Tigray compared with just 1.1 million people who have been reached with food aid so far in 2021, the report said. It added that severe malnutrition among children and pregnant women in the region is increasing.
Likewise, a 6 April report by the World Peace Foundation entitled “Starving Tigray” says warring forces are blamed for having “comprehensively dismantled the region’s economy and food system” leaving millions at risk of starvation.
In a statement issued last month, the Bishops’ Conference of Ethiopia reiterated calls for an end to the conflict and for all parties to embrace dialogue. They stressed their condemnation of “all human right abuses, killing of innocent civilians, displacement of people and destroying of properties.”
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