* Group accused of attacking Christians
* 69 churches burnt, 4,000 displaced by incidents
* One person also killed from attacks
By Aaron Maasho
ADDIS ABABA, July 1 (Reuters ) – An Ethiopian court has sentenced 558 people to jail terms ranging from six months to 25 years for attacks on Christians that displaced thousands and led 69 churches to be burned to the ground.
More than 4,000 members of local Protestant denominations were forced to flee near the town of Asendabo, some 300 kilometres (186 miles) west of the capital, in March during a rare bout of religious violence.
Mobs of Muslim youths carried out week-long attacks on Protestants after rumours that desecrated pages from the Koran had been found at a church construction site. Authorities reported a single death from the attacks.
“They were punished for their involvement in instigating and participating in religious disturbances in western Ethiopia,” government spokesman Shimelis Kemal said of the court cases. Forty-four people were acquitted.
Regional officials told Reuters almost all the displaced people have returned to their homes, some of which were repaired with support from local Muslims.
Authorities, keen to avoid further fall-out between the two groups, have held several meetings in the area and claim normalcy has returned.
In March, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi blamed a little-known local Muslim group of preaching intolerance in the region, and warned of growing religious tensions in the Christian-dominated country.
“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.
The Horn of Africa nation is 60 percent Christian, a majority being followers of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, and 30 percent Muslim.
March’s attacks came as a major surprise in a country where most take pride in centuries-old coexistence and intermarriage. (Editing by George Obulutsa and Robert Woodward)