ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Muslims in Ethiopia protested in the capital Addis Ababa during Eid al-Fitr prayers on Thursday, as part of a two-year-old campaign against what they say is government interference in their religious affairs.
A heavy police presence around the city’s stadium - the venue for morning prayers - marked a tense runup to the Muslim holiday after clashes between Muslims and police killed up to five people last week in Ethiopia’s south.
Demonstrators chanted “Allahu Akbar” and hoisted banners that read “respect the constitution”, referring to allegations that the government has tried to influence the highest Muslim affairs body, the Ethiopia Islamic Affairs Supreme Council.
Ethiopia, long seen by the West as a bulwark against militant Islam in the Horn of Africa, denies the claims but says it fears militancy is taking root in the country.
“These were Salafist elements who tried to create disturbances as the crowd went back to their homes,” government spokesman Shimeles Kemal told Reuters, referring to the ultraconservative brand of Islam followed by al Qaeda.
“They have no following among the population but still tried to make it look like a protest. A few have been arrested.”
Muslims make up about a third of the population in the majority Christian nation of 85 million, and the vast majority follow the moderate, Sufi version of Islam.
Some have been staging mosque sit-ins and street protests in the capital for almost two years. They accuse the government of promoting an “alien” branch of Islam - the Al Ahbash sect - which is avowedly apolitical.
The government denies that, and protesters’ allegations that authorities tried to rig elections to the Islamic council earlier this year.
Shimeles said the protesters aimed to set up an Islamic state in the country and were bankrolled and guided by “extremists” overseas.
Thursday’s incidents followed clashes in Kofele in Ethiopia’s Oromiya region, where government officials said Muslims wielding machetes and arms clashed with police, killing police officers and civilians. The protesters blamed the authorities for the incident.
Last year, police arrested 29 members of a committee that called for protests, accusing them of “planning to commit terrorist acts”.
Amnesty International urged Ethiopia on Thursday to end “its use of repressive tactics” against the demonstrators.
Reporting by Aaron Maasho; Editing by James Macharia and Andrew Roche