Tigray crisis: Ethiopia to repair al-Nejashi mosque

The Ethiopian government has pledged to repair a centuries-old mosque that was damaged last month during the conflict in the northern Tigray region.

The al-Nejashi mosque was reportedly bombed and looted, and the graves of historical Islamic figures were damaged.

The government said a nearby church damaged during the conflict would also be repaired.

Locals believe that al-Nejashi was built by the first Muslims to migrate to Africa during the time of the Prophet Muhammad.

They had fled persecution in Mecca and took refuge in what was then the kingdom of Aksum.

Local Muslims believe that 15 followers of the Prophet Muhammad are buried in the damaged graves.

They also say that the mosque is the oldest in Africa, although others believe this title belongs to that of Egypt.

The mosque is located in the town of Wukro, approximately 800 km (500 miles) from the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

An Orthodox Christian church named Saint Emmanuel was also damaged, but further details are not available.

A Turkish aid agency launched a project in 2015 to renovate the mosque, saying it wanted “preserve the heritage” of the monument and wanted it to become a major destination for “religious tourism”.

The mosque was renovated with the help of Turkey

The mosque and the nearby church were damaged during the month-long military operation that led the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) to be ousted from power in the region on November 28.

What happened to the mosque?

A Belgium-based nonprofit, Europe External Program with Africa, reported on December 18 that al-Nejashi Mosque was “first bombarded then looted by Ethiopian and Eritrean troops“.

“Tigrayan sources say people have died trying to protect the mosque,” ​​he added.

The government has not commented on the reports. The Ethiopian and Eritrean governments also deny that Eritrean forces are in Tigray to help fight the TPLF.

Learn more about the battles in Tigray:

On Monday, Ethiopian state television quoted locals as saying TPLF forces dug trenches around the mosque, without giving further details.

The government has placed heavy restrictions on the media in Tigray, making it difficult to know what exactly is going on. Access to Tigray has also been restricted for aid workers.

In an interview with BBC Amharic, deputy director of the Ethiopian Heritage Preservation Authority Abebaw Ayalew said a team would be dispatched to inspect the damage to the mosque and church before it was repaired.

“These sites are not just places of worship. It is also the heritage of all Ethiopia, ”he said.

How serious was the conflict?

It is not known how many people were killed in the conflict, but Mr Abiy previously said the army did not kill any civilians during the operation which led to the removal of the TPLF from power.

The UN and other human rights bodies are calling for an independent investigation into the allegations against all parties, including the massacre of civilians and the bombing and looting of residential areas and a hospital.

More than 50,000 people have fled to Sudan to escape the fighting.

What is it about?

The conflict erupted in early November, when Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered a military offensive against regional forces in Tigray.

He said he did so in response to an attack on military bases housing government troops in Tigray.

The conflict arose after months of feuds between Mr Abiy’s government and leaders of the TPLF – the region’s dominant political party.

For nearly three decades, the party was at the center of power, before being sidelined after Mr. Abiy took office in 2018 following anti-government protests.

Five things about Tigray:

1. The kingdom of Axum was centered in the region. Described as one of the greatest civilizations of the ancient world, it was once the most powerful state between the Roman and Persian empires.

Ruins of the palace of the queen of Sheba near Axum, Axum, Dongur palace
Aksum is believed to have been the home of the Biblical Queen of Sheba

2. The ruins of the city of Aksum are a United Nations World Heritage Site. The site, dating between the 1st and 13th centuries AD, features obelisks, castles, royal tombs and a church which some say houses the Ark of the Covenant.

3. Most of the inhabitants of Tigray are Ethiopian Orthodox Christians. The region’s Christian roots date back 1,600 years.

4. The main language of the region is Tigrinya, a Semitic dialect with at least seven million speakers around the world.

5. Sesame is an important cash crop, exported to the United States, China and other countries.

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