(VOA): Police in Ethiopia have arrested 130 people described as religious extremists in connection with a series of church burnings in a Muslim-majority area. Tensions are simmering in a region where Muslims and Christians have lived side by side for generations.
Several U.S.-based Christian websites say Muslim extremists burned dozens of churches near Jimma town in the western Oromia region over the past several days. The websites quote local church members as saying thousands of Muslims had joined in the burnings, and that 4,000 Christians had fled their homes in fear around the small community of Asendabo.
Ethiopian government spokesman Shimelis Kemal told VOA two Christians had been killed in the incidents. In a telephone interview, he said police reinforcements had moved in and restored order.
“In Jimma area, some extremists and some fundamentalists have instigated some people to burn a few prayer places, praying places, and this has been investigated by police and those who are suspected to have set fire on those churches have been apprehended,” he said.
Shimelis said 130 suspects had been charged with instigating religious hatred and violence.
One political activist working in Jimma, who asked not to be identified, quoted Muslim residents in the region as saying the attacks erupted after reports spread that a Christian had desecrated a Koran. That information could not be confirmed.
Attempts by VOA to reach police and local church leaders were unsuccessful Tuesday. Moga Firisa, head of the opposition Oromo Federal Democratic Movement and a native of the region, said he was conducting his own investigation. He said the burnings had occurred over a period of several days beginning late last week.
Moga said the trouble had broken out in a place known for communal harmony, where Muslim and Christian families have lived and worked together for as long as anyone can remember.
The most recent census indicates Ethiopia is about 60 percent Christian and 40 percent Muslim, though many Muslims dispute the figures. The area where the trouble broke out last week is predominantly Muslim.
Federal police in the Horn of Africa nation intervened after three churches and two houses were torched following an alleged burning of the Koran in Asendabo, the Washington DC- based rights group said in a statement on its website. Two more churches were then burned, it said, citing local church leaders. Asendabo is about 280 kilometers (174 miles) southwest of Addis Ababa.
Ethiopian Communications Minister Bereket Simon said that only two houses used for worship were burned in the incident.
“No one has died,” he said by phone from Addis Ababa. “It’s a very minor, isolated incident.”
Calls to the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council weren’t answered or didn’t connect when Bloomberg News sought comment today.
Ethiopian Kale Heywot Church, an Addis Ababa-based evangelical organization, said today it would make a statement once it had met with the government and carried out its own investigation.
Incidents of religious strife in Ethiopia are rare, although there have been sectarian clashes in the south-west in recent years. Ethiopia’s population includes 34 percent Muslims and 63 percent Christians, according to the CIA World Factbook.