ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (AP) — As midday prayers came to an end at the Grand Anwar mosque in Ethiopia’s capital, worshippers continued on to what has become a regular second act on Fridays — shouting anti-government slogans.
The demonstrations this Friday did not turn violent. But tensions are rising between the government in this mostly Christian country and Muslim worshippers. On Monday, federal prosecutors charged a group of 29 Muslims with terrorism and working to establish an Islamic republic.
Not all encounters between police and the protesters have been peaceful. In July, hundreds were arrested after a scuffle in the mosque that injured many and damaged property, including city buses.
Religious violence outside the capital has killed eight and wounded about a dozen this year in two incidents, including one last month when protesters tried to free jailed Muslim leaders in the Amhara region. Protests first erupted in December after the state, wary of Islamist extremists, wanted to change the leadership of a religious school in the capital.
The government also expelled two Arabs in May after the pair flew in from Middle East and disseminated pamphlets at the Anwar mosque. Two-thirds of Ethiopians are Christians; the rest are Muslims.
Ethiopia’s former leader, Meles Zenawi, before he died in August expressed concern over rising fundamentalism he said was evident by the first discovery of an al-Qaida cell in the country. A federal court is scheduled to rule Monday in the case of 11 people charged with being members of al-Qaida. One Kenyan national has already pleaded guilty.
Protesters also accuse the government of unconstitutionally encouraging a moderate teaching of Islam called Al-Ahbash and dictating the election of community leaders to support it at an Addis Ababa religious school.
Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, speaking to parliament on Oct. 16, said the government fully respects freedom of religion and “would not interfere in the affairs of religion just as religion would not interfere in matters of politics.” He blamed “extremist elements” for the protests. He said some protesters “tried to activate a hidden political agenda under the pretext of religion.”
On Monday, federal prosecutors charged a group of 29 people, including the jailed activists, with terrorism.
The group, including a wife of a senior Cabinet minister, now faces charges including leading a covert movement to undermine the country’s secular constitution and establish an Islamic republic. Prosecutors say the group incited violence and called for jihad against the federal government.
The minister’s wife, Habiba Mohammed, is charged with coordinating finances for the group. Police say she was caught leaving the Saudi Arabian embassy in Addis Ababa with nearly $3,000. Other suspects are also charged with receiving pay from the embassy “to preach extremism.”
Before the charges were filed, the minister defended his wife, saying he had asked the Saudi ambassador for the money to help construct a mosque their family is building.
Rights groups are concerned about the trial and the use of an anti-terrorism law which they say has been used in past trials to silence dissent, not prosecute terrorists.
“Many of these trials have been politically motivated and marred by serious due process violations. The Ethiopian authorities should allow systematic independent trial monitoring, including by human rights organizations, throughout the trial,” said Laetitia Bader of Human Rights Watch.
One protester on Friday said his group is changing the color used in past protests, yellow, to white to underscore that the jailed leaders are peaceful activists, not terrorists.