Shadow of war hangs over Ethiopia's Meskel festival celebrations

ADDIS ABABA, Sept 27 (Reuters) - The shadow of war hung over Ethiopia's Meskel festival in Addis Ababa on Tuesday, with high security, low turnout and Orthodox Christian priests calling for peace and forgiveness in their sermons.

The event - usually a joyous affair where huge crowds gather around bonfires - marks the moment when the 4th century Roman Empress St Helena found Christ's cross in Jerusalem.

As they do year after year, hundreds of priests, musicians and singers clad in white robes came together on the vast expanse of the capital's Meskel Square.

But the mood was much darker and the clergy kept turning to the conflict raging again in the northern region of Tigray.

"Truly speaking, this year, we Ethiopians are not celebrating the festival in full happiness," said Archbishop Abuna Markos, resplendent in a white robe with gold trim and embroidered silver crosses and blue floral designs.

"Just like the mothers were crying under the cross, our mothers in the North are also crying. They are suffering. This suffering is common to all of us. It's our own," he said, holding a gold cross encrusted with red gems.

The war in Tigray, which broke out in November 2020 and has spilt over into other regions, has killed thousands of people, displaced many more and left an estimated 13 million people in desperate need of food aid. read more

The conflict has pitted Ethiopia's federal army, its regional allies and the Eritrean military against forces loyal to the Tigray People's Liberation Front (TPLF), the party that controls Tigray's regional government.

The central government and its allies accuse the TPLF, which long dominated Ethiopia's ruling coalition, of seeking to reassert its dominance, while the TPLF accuses the central government of abusing its powers and oppressing Tigray.

Both dismiss each other's accusations. After months of relative quiet, fighting flared again in August.

"On this day, my prayer for the new year is that God says 'enough', because he is the owner of peace and he declared peace through his cross by denouncing hatred," said deacon Haileyesus Meleku, holding an ornate silver staff.

Reporting by Addis Ababa newsroom; Writing by Estelle Shirbon; Editing by Andrew Heavens

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