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Abbey urged to return sacred relic to Ethiopia

The Observer 26 September 10

Westminster Abbey has been accused of sacrilege over its refusal to return a "looted" sacred object to the Ethiopian Orthodox church.

The object is a tabot, a small tablet that symbolises the Ark of the Covenant. Tabots are regarded by 35 million Ethiopian Christians as so sacrosanct that only priests are allowed to look at them. Such is their significance that they must never be displayed or photographed. The abbey has a stone tabot inlaid at the back of an 1870s altar in the Henry VII Lady Chapel, where it is visible to anyone peering around its left side.

A British priest, the Rev John McLuckie, is backing calls for its return, not least because it was taken as booty by British troops in the 19th century. He told the Observer: "This is completely unacceptable. Sacrilege would not be too strong a word. It's loot, taken violently and inappropriately in the first place. A tabot is a very holy object; no one can see it apart from priests. Westminster Abbey is one of the most visited sites in London. To have it on public display there is an offence to Orthodox Ethiopian Christians. For one Christian church to refuse to return it to another seems profoundly wrong. It's an extraordinary act of arrogance. Returning it to Ethiopia would be an act of goodwill. There's no good reason for the abbey to have it. More importantly, it doesn't belong to them."

McLuckie worked for a missionary agency in Ethiopia in the 1980s, and when he was a priest in Edinburgh in 2002 he returned a wooden tabot found in a cupboard. Almost a million people turned out on the streets of Addis Ababa to welcome it back.

Every Ethiopian church has a tabot, which is consecrated instead of the building and its grounds. Tabots are made from stone or wood and generally measure about 7in by 5in and bear a carved cross and an ancient Ethiopian inscription with the name of a saint.

At least 15 tabots were among hundreds of objects looted in 1868 from Maqdala, the mountain fortress of Emperor Tewodros II in northern Ethiopia, by an expeditionary force under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Robert Napier. The treasures, transported on 15 elephants and 200 mules, were shared between the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Library. The British Museum's 13 tabots remain in storage because it has agreed never to display them or allow its curators to handle them. A spokesman said: "The British Museum trustees believe the Maqdala material is integral to the museum's purpose, to tell the story of human cultural achievement."

Professor Richard Pankhurst, a leading scholar on Ethiopia, has long campaigned for the return of these treasures. He said: "Tewodros committed suicide rather than be taken prisoner by the British army. His body was set upon by souvenir-seekers - officers and soldiers alike - who stripped him of his clothes and tore out his hair. The army looted the main churches and destroyed the Maqdala fortress. . . These are sacred treasures whose looting caused, and continues to cause, great distress to the many millions of Ethiopians who are extremely devout Christians."

An Ethiopian priest, Gebre Giorgis, of St Gabriel's church in north-west London, said: "A tabot has no use [for Westminster Abbey]. We do use it. It is ours, not theirs. They know that."

McLuckie has negotiated behind the scenes for the past year for the tabot's return. However, last month he was astonished to receive a note from the dean's office confirming that the abbey will not be returning the tabot. The note stated: "I don't think there will be any further developments. I'm sorry that this comes as a disappointment."

Berhanu Kassayie, an Ethiopian campaigner, said: "That they didn't even communicate their decision directly to us, despite our patience and quiet stance, is totally unsatisfactory and shows that the institution is disrespectful."

However, an abbey spokesman said: "We've never said we're not going to return it." The abbey's fabric commission needs to give technical advice on whether the altar would be damaged by its removal, he said, emphasising that the tabot's display is far from prominent: "It's never been made a great show of."

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