March 25, 2011

"Muslim Extremists Torch Protestant Churches": Two Related News

Ethiopia’s religious divide flares up in violence 
ASENDABO, Ethiopia (Reuters) - The hollow chants of "Allahu Akbar!" reverberating from a distance seemed innocuous at first for Abera Gutema, who ventured home quietly from his shop just a short distance away. Moments later, a large, angry mob of machete-wielding Muslim youths descended on his family's dwelling and chased him out, before burning and looting his property.

Abera, a Christian, escaped through a back door, clutching his infant son Eyoel in one hand. By the time the smoke cleared, all that remained of his hard-earned belongings had been reduced to rubble, not to mention the theft of 100,000 birr -- his lifetime savings.

"They were our friends, our neighbours with whom we shared everything," said Abera, his eyes watering with tears. "I never thought that this day would ever come."

Such attacks are extremely uncommon in Ethiopia which, according to official figures is about 60 percent Christian and 30 percent Muslim, with smaller faiths making up the remainder.

Churches and mosques sprawl together and, with a history of intermarriage, many Ethiopians boast about a long period of religious tolerance.

Any attempts by religious extremists to exploit sectarian tensions has the potential to destabilise a country seen by the West as a bulwark against Islamic extremism in the Horn of Africa.

Ethiopia's secular government sent troops into neighbouring Somalia in 2006 to oust an Islamist group who had taken over much of the country.

Abera was one of more than 4,000 members of local Protestant denominations displaced by a rare bout of religious violence earlier this month when Muslims staged a week of attacks in an area about 300 km (200 miles) west of the capital.

Local Imams say the incidents were sparked when word came out that Muslim labourers working at a construction site at a Protestant church claimed to have found pages from the Koran used as toilet paper.

Despite appeals for restraint, they say an angry mob quickly gathered as calls for attacks blared from the loudspeakers of nearby mosques.

A total of 69 churches, a Bible school and an office were eventually burned to the ground, and one Christian was killed.

"It was shocking. I've heard them say those who don't take part were not true Muslims," said Abera, now housed in a makeshift shelter along with his wife and child.


Though unusual, similar attacks took place in 2006 in the same area, leaving dozens of Christians dead. Back then, as now, Ethiopia blamed extremist groups.

"We believe that there are elements of the Kawarja sect and other extremists who have been preaching for religious intolerance in the area," Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told a news conference last week.

Little is known of the Kawarja, but officials say they have been whipping up hatred and inciting violence against non-Muslims locally for the past few years.

Some say the Kawarja's aim is to establish an Islamic state in a country that has never had a Muslim leader in modern history.

More than a hundred suspected culprits have been apprehended so far, and authorities are now keen to build the confidence of residents of Asendabo, a town of 16,000 in western Ethiopia, and several joint meetings have already been held.

"I don't expect it to happen again. People here understand the importance and benefits of coexisting," said town mayor Teshome Degefu.

Just metres away, the few Christians who chose to return to their damaged homes believed those responsible were a tiny minority.

"Muslims here have donated money and are rebuilding the homes of displaced Christians. They have rejected the extremists' agenda," Teshome added.

Pastor Tesfaye Abadura, whose Kale Hiwot church bore the brunt of the attacks, also blamed the Kawarja.

"Not all Muslims are dangerous," he said.

Some residents suspect those blaming extremist groups hoped to avert further blood-letting by diverting attention away from real tensions between the communities.

"I don't believe they (Kawarja) exist in our society (in Asendabo)," 65-year old local imam Hajji Mahmoud Adam told Reuters.

"The Protestants are responsible for desecrating the Koran. But that said, I don't believe the Muslims did the right thing," he added.

While officials reject fears the violence could spread further afield, doubts linger whether either community is ready to forgive the other.

"We worry that a Christian child will grow up with an impression that all Muslims are enemies, while a Muslim child will grow up thinking that attacking Christians is justifiable," one Protestant said.

Thousands of Christians Displaced in Ethiopia After Muslim Extremists Torch Churches, Homes

By Diane Macedo
Published March 24, 2011
International Christian Concern
Remains of burned down Kale Hiwot church in Asendabo, Ethiopia.
Thousands of Christians have been forced to flee their homes in Western Ethiopia after Muslim extremists set fire to roughly 50 churches and dozens of Christian homes.

At least one Christian has been killed, many more have been injured and anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 have been displaced in the attacks that began March 2 after a Christian in the community of Asendabo was accused of desecrating the Koran.

The violence escalated to the point that federal police forces sent to the area two weeks ago were initially overwhelmed by the mobs. Government spokesman Shimelis Kemal told Voice of America police reinforcements had since restored order and 130 suspects had been arrested and charged with instigating religious hatred and violence.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said the Islamist group Kawarja is believed to have incited the violence.

"We believe there are elements of the Kawarja sect and other extremists who have been preaching religious intolerance in the area,” he said at a Saturday press conference. “In previous times, we have cracked down on Kawarja because they were involved in violence. Since then they have changed their tactics and they have been able to camouflage their activities through legal channels."

The string of attacks comes on the heels of several reports of growing anti-Christian tension and violence around the country where Muslims make up roughly one-third of the total population but more than 90 percent of the population in certain areas, 2007 Census data shows.

One of those areas is Besheno where, on November 9, all the Christians in the city woke up to find notes on their doors warning them to convert to Islam, leave the city or face death, a Christian from Besheno told on condition of anonymity.

“Under the Ethiopian constitution we are supposed to have freedom of religion, but Muslim leaders in our town don’t allow us that right,” the source said.

Later that month three Christians in Besheno were assaulted in religiously-motivated attacks and three others were forced to flee the city after being told that Muslim leaders had commissioned hit men to kill them, one of the exiled Christians told

“We were told by some Muslims that live in the city that there was already a plan to kill us and that the people who were assigned to kill us had already come from another city to do it.”

A witness to the three attacks was then assaulted in January after testifying about them in court, International Christian Concern (ICC), an organization that aims to fight Christian persecution, reported.

In the southern town of Moyale, a Christian was sentenced to three years in prison in November for allegedly writing "Jesus is the Lord" in a copy of the Koran, Compass Direct News reported. Christians from the area told the website he had actually written the phrase on a piece of cloth.

Sources also told Compass authorities had offered to release the man, Tamirat Woldegorgis, if he would convert to Islam, but he refused.

Additionally, two of his friends were fined for visiting him in prison and taking him food, Compass Direct reported.

And in Oma Village on February 26 a Muslim mob with rocks and rods assaulted and wounded 17 Christian college students who were distributing Bibles during a mission trip, ICC reported.

The mob overwhelmed government security forces that attempted to protect the students, but the students eventually fled, the ICC website said.

"The violence against Christians in Ethiopia is alarming because Ethiopian Muslims and Christians used to live together peacefully. Besides, it’s extremely disconcerting that in Ethiopia, where Christians are the majority, they are also the victims of persecution," Jonathan Racho, ICC's Regional Manager of Africa and South Asia, told

Meles said that the government is doing everything it can to stop religious violence.

"We knew that they were peddling this ideology of intolerance, but it was not possible for us to stop them administratively because they are within their rights," he said. "If we can find some association between what they are doing by way of preaching and what happened by way of violence, then of course we can take them to court."

Racho, originally from Ethiopia, said the fact that the government waited a full week before sending troops to Asendabo shows that it’s not doing enough. Going forward, he said he hopes the government "will take measures to ensure that such attacks will not happen in the future," including bringing all responsible parties to justice to show this will not be tolerated.

"The Ethiopian government has arrested around 130 of the perpetrators, and we hope they will be prosecuted according to the law."

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