The Orthodox Church in Ethiopia has lashed out at the country’s prime minister, saying he has failed to protect its members in the wake of ethnic and religious clashes that left nearly 70 dead.
“People are dying and questions are being raised if the government even exists. The people are losing all hope,” Father Markos Gebre-Egziabher, a leader in the Orthodox Tewahedo Church, told AFP following a memorial service at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa.
Violence erupted in the capital Addis Ababa and the outlying Oromia region on Wednesday after a prominent activist Jawar Mohammed accused security forces of trying to orchestrate an attack against him, a claim police officials denied.
It quickly morphed into clashes and a police official said Friday that 67 people had died in Oromia.
Oromiya’s top police official said: “There was a hidden agenda to divert the whole protest into an ethnic and religious conflict.
“There were attempts to burn churches and mosques,” Oromiya regional police commissioner Kefyalew Tefera told Reuters.
On Saturday, the prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, who won the Nobel Peace Prize earlier this month denounced what he described as ‘attempts to provoke an ethnic and religious crisis’.
“The crisis we are experiencing could get even worse if the Ethiopians do not unite,” Abiy said in his first statement since the clashes began.
“There is an attempt to turn the current crisis into an ethnic and religious crisis.”
Tefera had said late on Friday that 67 people had been killed in the region in two days of protests.
The majority of the deaths came from fighting between civilians, he said. Police have arrested 150 people in Oromiya region so far in connection with the violence.
Sixty-eight people were arrested on suspicion of robbing and attempting to burn a mosque and an orthodox church in the city of Adama in Oromiya, the city’s mayor said in an interview on a state-run broadcaster. He said the suspects took advantage of peaceful protests to spark ethnic and religious conflict.
“We will work tirelessly to ensure that justice prevails and bring the guilty to justice,” Abiy said.
Unhappy Orthodox Church
A church spokesman told AFP on Saturday that 52 Orthodox Ethiopians, including two church officials, had been killed, a toll that AFP could not independently verify.
Fisseha Tekle, a researcher for Amnesty International, said Saturday that Orthodox churches had been attacked in at least three locations, while there was at least one report of a mosque being targeted.
Church leaders met with Defence Minister Lemma Megersa and Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen, state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate reported Saturday, though it was unclear what came of the meeting.
At Sunday’s memorial service in Addis Ababa, hundreds of worshippers bowed their heads during a moment of silence for the victims.
Father Markos said members of the church were prepared to die in defence of fellow worshippers and church property.
“If they come with machetes, we will go with crosses,” he said. “God is with us.”
Churchgoer Esubalew Yimam called the government’s response and particularly Abiy’s statement “disappointing”.
“The duty of the government is to protect its citizens, more than development and other things,” he said. “Currently we’re not seeing that happening.”
Orthodox Christians make up roughly 40 percent of Ethiopia’s 110 million people.