By Aaron Maasho
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) – Ethiopian police clashed on Saturday with scores of Muslims protesters complaining that the state is interfering in their religion, witnesses and officials said.
The protesters, some wearing masks, blocked the entrance of the Anwar Mosque in the west of the capital Addis Ababa and hurled stones at riot police who had surrounded the compound after noon prayers.
“Police broke inside the mosque and arrested many people, including several members of the (protest organising) committee. They also fired teargas at protesters outside,” said an activist who declined to be named for fear of reprisals.
Another witness said he had seen empty tear gas canisters strewn on the ground. It was not immediately possible to verify these reports.
Thousands of Muslims have staged sporadic street protests in the capital since late last year, arguing that the government is promoting an alien branch of Islam, the Al Ahbash sect, which is avowedly apolitical and has numerous adherents in the United States.
The government denies promoting Al Ahbash, but is determined to prevent Islamic militancy spilling over from neighbouring Sudan or lawless Somalia.
Around 60 percent of Ethiopians are Christian and 30 percent Muslim, mostly of the moderate, pragmatic Sufi tradition.
Diplomats and analysts say there could be potential for any militant groups to exploit sectarian divisions and trigger violence.
The government accuses “extremist elements” of sparking violence at the protests.
Government spokesman Shimeles Kemal said police had arrested ‘several’ people on Saturday but denied that police had used teargas.
“These were masked assailants from extremist groups that prevented mosque attendants from leaving the compound after the completion of noon prayers,” he said.
“They tried to incite violence, they threw stones and damaged property.”
Activists have reported several deaths during previous clashes, but no casualties were reported on Saturday.
Al Ahbash, also known as the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects, was founded in the early 1980s by Sheikh Abdullah al Harrari, an Ethiopian cleric who was forced to leave his country for Lebanon in 1950.
The protesters say the government is promoting the ideas of the group through Ethiopia’s highest Muslim body, the Supreme Council on Islamic Affairs, and preventing overdue elections that could bring alternative views onto the Council.
Shimeles denied that the government was trying to influence Muslim affairs. “Our constitution bans any government interference in religion,” he said.