ADDIS ABABA -- At least nine Muslims and a number of Christians were killed this week in religious riots in western Ethiopia, the country's main Islamic group said Thursday, as police confirmed the clashes for the first time.
The Islamic Affairs Supreme Council of Ethiopia said that the nine were killed and numerous houses burned in several days of violence that erupted Sunday near the town of Jimma, following a seasonal Orthodox festival last week."About nine Muslims have been killed in clashes with Christians," said council vice-president Elias Redman, adding that most of the Muslims in the area practice the ultra-conservative Wahhabi brand of Islam."I know some Christians have also been killed, but I don't know how many," he said, adding that it was not yet clear what actually prompted the violence.
Elias said that a team from the Islamic affairs council was traveling to the village of Dembi, northwest of Jimma, which is about 490 kilometers (305 miles) west of Addis Ababa, to investigate the clashes.Meanwhile, Ethiopian Federal Police acknowledged the violence in Dembi for the first time Thursday. "I can confirm there was some incident in that area, but we don't know the origin," police spokesman Demsach Hailu said, adding that he had no further details and that an investigation was underway.
On Wednesday, diplomatic and Orthodox church sources said that the violence flared after Orthodox Christians last week celebrated the annual Meskel festival, which Muslims object to, and that at least four people had been killed.They said that in addition to deaths and multiple injuries, two churches had been burned down and more than 100 people had fled the area during the violence after the celebration of Meskel.
Meskel, which means "cross" in Amharic, is an Orthodox festival marking the arrival of spring that is celebrated by the burning of giant cross. It comes shortly after the Ethiopian New Year, which this year began September 11.An Orthodox church official said that ecclesiastical authorities were also headed to Dembi to look into the violence and were growing increasingly concerned about conflict between faiths.
In May, Islamic youth in the eastern town of Jijiga, about 720 kilometers from the capital, stoned the homes and businesses of Christians after taking offense at what they said was the desecration of the Koran.Jijiga is the capital of Ethiopia's Somali region. It lies on the border with lawless Somalia, where a powerful hardline Islamist movement has taken control of much of the south and center of the country. Ethiopia's Somali region is predominantly Muslim but the majority of the Horn of Africa nation's 77 million population, about 60 percent, are Orthodox Christians.