By Worthy News Africa Service
ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA (Worthy News)-- Thousands of Christians are fleeing violence in western Ethiopia where Muslim extremists killed several Christians and burned dozens of churches, rights activists and officials said.
Advocacy group Barnabas Fund, which supports Christians in the Muslim-majority area, told Worthy News that 55 churches and dozens of homes are reported to have been torched in recent days near the city of Jimma, in western Oromia region, "with many more properties looted by the mob."
Ethiopian government spokesman Shimelis Kemal said in a radio interview that two Christians had been killed in the incidents in the town of Asendabo and surrounding areas and that police reinforcements had moved in to restore 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 told the
Voice of America (VOA) network in an earlier interview.
Barnabas Fund said Wednesday, March 9, that three Christians had been killed. There was no immediate explanation for the discrepancy, but with tensions continuing the death toll was expected to rise.
"Attacks involving thousands of Islamists have continued, spreading systematically through five districts in the predominantly Muslim area," said International Christian Concern (ICC), another U.S. based rights group closely monitoring the situation.
Government officials said so far 130 suspects had been detained and charged with instigating religious hatred and violence.
ICC quoted a Christian leader as saying that the attacks were organized by members of Kwarej, a radical Islamic group that fights to establish an Islamic state in Ethiopia.
The Muslim attackers allegedly came from different parts of Ethiopia, including the Somali region. "It’s very sad that a radical Muslim group destabilizes the unity of Ethiopian Christians and Muslims. We are devastated by the attacks and we urge all concerned people to help us. We call upon Ethiopian officials to prevent similar attacks from happening in the future," the church leader reportedly said, apparently speaking on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.
The government has not yet confirmed the background of those detained.
Asendabo is a town located in an area that was the scene of violent attacks against Christians in 2006 when Muslims killed more than a dozen Christians and burned down several churches, ICC said.
“Islamic radicals are fighting to establish an Islamic state in Christian majority Ethiopia. Unfortunately, the Christians have borne the brunt of the Islamic attacks," said ICC’s Regional Manager for Africa, Jonathan Racho told Worthy News in a statement.
"Christians will continue to be killed unless the government of Ethiopia starts taking serious measures to stop Islamists from carrying out similar attacks," Racho said, adding that his group has urged the international community to pressure Ethiopia's government to improve the situation.
The most recent census reportedly indicates that Ethiopia is about 60 percent Christian and 40 percent Muslim, though Muslims dispute the figures. (With reporting by Worthy News' Stefan J. Bos and reporters in the region).