ADDIS ABABA - Unofficial committees within Ethiopia's 30-million strong Muslim community are organizing demonstrations to protest what they say is government interference in Islamic affairs. Tensions are rising as the government tries to preempt what it sees as the rise of a hardline strain of Islam.
Worshippers arriving for Friday prayers at Addis Ababa's Awalia mosque found a notice posted at the entrance, which read: "They managed to get in through the back door before. Let's make sure it doesn't happen again."
The notice was signed by a mosque committee opposed to what it says has been a quiet government takeover of Ethiopia's Islamic Affairs Supreme Council. The committee is demanding elections for new council members, to be held in the city's mosques. They rejected a suggestion that the vote be held in neighborhood government halls called kebeles.
Standing at the entrance to the mosque, Ibrahim Hassan who teaches computer science at the Awalia Mission School
, says holding the election in kebele halls would open the door to mischief.
"It should be inside the mosques, not in the kebeles because if it carried out in the kebeles there will be corruption, or some of the government authorities may participate. That is not fair. It is related to religion. There must not be interference of government in such tasks," he said.
Awalia mosque has been at the center of protests against what many Muslims see as government efforts to ban the teachings of the conservative Salafist sect of Islam. The Islamic Supreme Council recently fired several teachers at the Awalia mission school and shut down an Arabic language teaching center.
Teacher Ibrahim accuses the council of trying to indoctrinate Ethiopian Muslims into the little known al-Abhash sect that preaches non-violence, as opposed to the more militant Salafist brand of Islam.
"They think that the committee may be terrorists," he said. "They consider us terrorists, but it represents all the Muslim communities. They said that [some] Salafists are members of al-Qaida, but in Ethiopia all of the Muslims are not members of al-Qaida, they are simply regular Muslims."
Prime Minister Meles Zenawi last month signaled a crackdown on those he accused of “peddling ideologies of intolerance." In a speech to parliament, he said a few Salafis had formed clandestine al-Qaida cells in the southern part of the country.
Days later, four protesters were killed and many others injured in the southern state, Oromia when they tried to prevent police from arresting a Muslim cleric accused of promoting a radical ideology.
Last week, five men, including one Kenyan national, were arraigned in Addis Ababa's federal court on charges of operating an al-Qaida cell out of a mosque in Oromia.
In another incident this month, Ethiopian authorities expelled two Arab men said to have been visiting from an unnamed Middle Eastern country. The two were detained after making what police called “inflammatory statements” and distributing materials at Addis Ababa's main Anwar mosque.
And last Friday, dozens of young men were reported to have stood outside Anwar mosque with tape over their mouths in a silent protest. Young men standing at the entrance to Awalia mosque at last Friday's prayers said another big demonstration is planned for this week.
More than half of Ethiopia's roughly 90 million people are Christian, while an estimated 35 percent are Muslim. The Horn of Africa nation has long prided itself on its religious tolerance.