Police in Ethiopia have arrested 130 people described as religious extremists in connection with a series of church burnings in a Muslim-majority area. Tensions are simmering in a region where Muslims and Christians have lived side by side for generations.
Several U.S.-based Christian websites say Muslim extremists burned dozens of churches near Jimma town in the western Oromia region over the past several days. The websites quote local church members as saying thousands of Muslims had joined in the burnings, and that 4,000 Christians had fled their homes in fear around the small community of Asendabo.
Ethiopian government spokesman Shimelis Kemal told VOA two Christians had been killed in the incidents. In a telephone interview, he said police reinforcements had moved in and restored order.
"In Jimma area, some extremists and some fundamentalists have instigated some people to burn a few prayer places, praying places, and this has been investigated by police and those who are suspected to have set fire on those churches have been apprehended," he said.
Shimelis said 130 suspects had been charged with instigating religious hatred and violence.
One political activist working in Jimma, who asked not to be identified, quoted Muslim residents in the region as saying the attacks erupted after reports spread that a Christian had desecrated a Koran. That information could not be confirmed.
Attempts by VOA to reach police and local church leaders were unsuccessful Tuesday. Moga Firisa, head of the opposition Oromo Federal Democratic Movement and a native of the region, said he was conducting his own investigation. He said the burnings had occurred over a period of several days beginning late last week.
Moga said the trouble had broken out in a place known for communal harmony, where Muslim and Christian families have lived and worked together for as long as anyone can remember.
The most recent census indicates Ethiopia is about 60 percent Christian and 40 percent Muslim, though many Muslims dispute the figures. The area where the trouble broke out last week is predominantly Muslim.