ROME — It has been more than 30 years since that old rocker Bob Geldof launched the charity initiative Band Aid for famine in Ethiopia with the poignant tune, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Since then, it would seem from afar, Ethiopia has hovered on the edge of disaster, with the ever-present threat it could sink into another cataclysmic disaster or famine like that of the mid-1980s.
But celebrating Christmas in Ethiopia now resonates with concerns about a different kind of threat in this region where extremists are attacking anyone who does not follow a very narrowly defined notion of Islam.
Last July, Pope Francis called the persecution of Christians across North Africa and the Middle East a “true genocide” that must be stopped after 28 Ethiopian Christians were massacred in Libya by followers of the so-called Islamic State.
Thus a very old tradition, the holding of Christmas services literally underground, is taking on new meaning.
In fact, Ethiopians and other Christians are at risk in Libya, Egypt, and Somalia, among other countries where, moving from the margins of one society to another, they have gone to work to try to build families. And many thousands more Ethiopians have made their way from here to Italy or to other parts of Europe to try to establish new lives.
So the traditional rites of the Ethiopian Church are looked on with nostalgia by the new generation of exiles abroad, and as an affirmation by those who still live in the country.
This year, on Jan. 7, the date of Christmas on the Julian calendar, more than 50,000 Christians will celebrate the holiday in the Churches of Lalibela hewn out of solid rock at a time, in the 12th century, when it seemed all of Christendom might be overrun by the armies of Islam.
The fortress of Lalibela, a few hundred miles from the capital Addis Ababa, has 11 monolithic Christian churches carved from huge individual rocks in the 12th century that are joined together by a labyrinth of buried tunnels and trenches. Some are shaped like crosses; others resemble Greek temples. They are all carved and chiseled from the stone. Nothing has been added, not altars, windows, doorways, or chapels. All is carved from the same stone.
King Lalibela in the 12th and early 13th centuries meant for these churches to be a new wonder of the world, a new Jerusalem, as he called the site after the Jerusalem of the Holy Land was taken by the armies of Islam in 1187. The river that runs nearby he named the River Jordan.
The Christmas services begin at midnight on Jan. 7 with a procession to the church of Bet Emmanuel, the largest of the monolithic churches, led by over 100 chanting priests dressed in white robes who begin dancing as the crowds cheer and clap. The service itself has not changed at all in the 800 years it has been celebrated, and worshipers clamor up the sides of the buried rock cutouts to take part in the ceremony.
Speaking at a meeting called “Caesar’s Sword: An International Conference on Christian Response to Persecution” last week in Rome, Mariz Tadros, a leading scholar on Christianity in Africa and the Arab world, said a new wave of Christian persecution may just be starting and that Christian murders often go unreported.
“Right now, Islamist movements are feeling very emboldened and are feeling that there is minimal accountability,” she said. “All other faiths, including Muslims who don’t share the radical, extremist ideals, become second-class citizens and are denigrated, ostracized, demonized.”
In such a world, for Ethiopians the history of their New Jerusalem carved from solid rock offers a special sense of consolation. Yes, they know it’s Christmas, and they will not be stopped from celebrating it.