Listed as world heritage by Unesco in 1978, the churches of Lalibela are unique. Carved into the rock, they are located under the ground level, surrounded by deep moats dry. Only their roofs are visible. The lessons surrounding these places of worship, extraordinary are only accessible by stairs and tunnels. At the top of the church extends a tarp mass supported by a wire mesh: it is one of the four shelters set up to protect the religious complex in old of nine centuries, in the north of Ethiopia. But according to the locals, these protections could instead make them disappear, despite the assurances of the experts.

The structures have been designed to move in case of strong winds, rather than to resist until their breaking point. EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP

“If this were to collapse, do you think that there would be anything of the church?” asks the priest of the orthodox Mekonnen Fatne, by pointing to the thick metal rods that dip into the red earth around the church of Bete Maryam. This week, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and the prime minister of ethiopia Abiy Ahmed must travel to Lalibela to visit the people hope that it will result in a new plan, money and expertise for the renovation of the religious complex.

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the defenders of The heritage to ensure that the shelters erected in 2008 to protect the churches from the rain do not represent any threat. They are in spite of everything become a symbol of the neglect suffered, according to the inhabitants of Lalibela, by themselves and the site. “We are here because of the heritage, said Yitibarek Getu, a deacon local. If there are no assets, just imagine what it’s going to happen!”

The inhabitants of the city are calling for a new innovation plan to the ethiopian prime minister and the French president. EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP

Lalibela, derives its name from the king Gebre Mesqel Lalibela, the power in the Thirteenth century, which according to legend, he had built eleven churches, with the help of angels, after God had ordered to build a “New Jerusalem”. Located 680 km north of Addis Ababa, Lalibela is a popular destination with foreign tourists and orthodox ethiopians. The orthodox religion is the most practiced in the country.

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“We want a permanent restoration, and we want the shelter to be removed”

Tsigieselassie Mazgebu, the parish priest of the parish

the rock-hewn churches measure up to 15 metres high, are full of ornaments and windows carved in the shape of a cross, but their rock composition makes them vulnerable to erosion due to rainfall torrential during the rainy season. The shelters of Italian manufacturing that protect some churches have aroused the wrath of the people who find them ugly and think that they are in danger of collapsing in high wind. “This is like a revenge of the Italians!”, lance Negash Adamu, a resident of Lalibela, aged 27, in reference to the conflict repeated, which have opposed in the past Ethiopia to its colonizers, the italians.

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The priests and the faithful complain that the heavy pillars of support of shelters have damaged the underground chapel of the Trinity, which is prohibited to the public, including the roof crack under the weight. The inhabitants of the region are also concerned about the solidity of the shelters, which come with a warranty of 10 years. “We want a permanent restoration, and we want the shelter to be removed,” says Tsigieselassie Mazgebu, the parish priest of the complex. There are great chances that if it falls on the treasure, he have to pull down.”

More than 60% of the ethiopian population is christian with a majority of orthodox. EDUARDO SOTERAS/AFP “there is not an imminent danger”

last year, the inhabitants of Lalibela dressed in shirts bearing the inscription “Save Lalibela” (“Save Lalibela”), protested against the state churches, according to Negash. For Hailu Zelekeke Woldetsadik, the director of the conservation of the cultural heritage, there is no need to worry. He denied any injury to the chapel of the Trinity and stated that the shelters were designed to withstand safely beyond their ten-year warranty. “There is not an imminent danger,”-he said to the AFP. The structures were designed to move in case of strong winds, rather than to resist until their breaking point.

Kidanemariam wolde-giorgis, an archaeologist who grew up in Lalibela, has attributed the controversy to a lack of consultation of the inhabitants of the city, which fueled the suspicions. “What they do is not clear, not transparent,” he said.

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According to Hailu Zelekeke Woldetsadik, Abiy Ahmed and Emmanuel Macron sign an agreement for the maintenance of the temporary shelter and the hiring of scientists who will be in charge of studying the possibility of restoring the churches damaged. This could open the way for the replacement of the shelter by lighter structures which could be opened or closed depending on weather conditions, during which are performed the repairs.