For the nation’s Muslims Friday July 20 was the first day of the holy fasting season of Ramadan.
But for some it was also a time to silently air grievances at what they feel is state interference in a spiritual matter.
For this reason some of Addis Ababa’s mosques were the scene of silent protests by the faithful.
They are saying the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC) favors ideas which are counter to what they believe is their interpretation of Islam.
A witness and one of the faithful who had attended the Friday worship at one of Addis Ababa’s biggest and oldest mosque, Anwar Grand Mosque said the worshippers had three demands.
The demands were: the election of a new “accountable” Islamic body to replace the current leadership of the EIASC, the ruling body on Islamic matters and issues; the institutionalization of the Awolia religious school as a public institution taken from the hands of the EIASC and the “imposition” of the teachings of the “Ahbash” which they see as heresy.
Critics of the “Ahbash” ideology say it promotes heretical ideas such as “partial permission” of interest rates on loans, which are forbidden in Islam, the dress style allowed for women and numbers of “Salats” (worship) of God required, which is a mandatory five times a day under strict Islamic religion.
The worshippers were seen holding posters saying “If asking for rights is shameful then we’re going to be martyrs,” “If asking for our constitutional rights is shameful then we’re going to be prisoners,” “Bring to justice those who desecrated our worship place,” etc… clasping their hands together to symbolize chaining.
The allegation of the desecration of the worship place refers to the July 13 incident between police and worshippers at the premises of the Awolia religious school when police reportedly broke into the school to allegedly stop disruption, subsequently leading to the injury and arrest of dozens of people.
According to the witness some of the aggrieved worshippers had been elected in Awolia mosque about six months ago, a 17 member committee to present their grievances to the government and that so far, a solution seems to be nowhere in sight.
Recently there appeared to have been an agreement between members of the ESIC and the aggrieved party about the election of new members of the Islamic council, but there were soon opposite views on the venue of elections.
The Islamic council had proposed the choice of election to be in Kebeles while the opposing party chose the place of election to be mosques, citing issues such as historical precedence for these type of religious elections and fears of manipulation in the election process.
However Abebe Worku, Head of Public Relations office at the Ministry of Federal Affairs (MoFA) said the questions of the protestors regarding the election process was hypocritical because while they’re asking for the government to stop its “interference,” they’re simultaneously asking for its help to prevent the elections from happening at the kebele level, and seeking protection for the election if it’s to happen in mosques.
The ministry also noted that mosques are religious places not election places. Also while it recognizes the people duly elected as representing the Muslim community as well as those that have grievances, including those that have reportedly established a committee, it said that they are going to be treated and already have been treated on an individual basis and have met with officials of the MoFA.
“Those who are acting as if they’re trying to represent part of the unhappy Muslim community in Ethiopia have no interest of the faithful at hand and weren’t duly elected,” Abebe said adding that there is no new religion or religious ideology called “Ahabsh” contrary to some reports and that those who’re spreading this word have a hidden agenda.
Abebe added that the Ethiopian government doesn’t get involved in religion except in three circumstances that is, giving security services on training sessions or other related issues, informing the constitution’s provisions on religious freedom and permitting halls for conferences to be undertaken by religious institutions.
ESIC has been giving religious trainings over the last few months to Islamic scholars and leaders over what was dubbed Ethiopian Islamic moderate Sufi tradition, which has been viewed as suspicious by some Muslims faithful.
In relation to last week’s clash around the Awolia religious school and other areas of Addis Ababa, Abebe said that there was a pre-planned commotion even with people coming from rural areas to coincide with the 19th Ordinary Assembly of the African Union (AU) Heads of State and Government held from July 15-16 which he said was foiled through a joint efforts of the police and the Muslim faithful.
Abebe further said that the Awolia religious school had been handled by a foreign Non-Governmental Organization at the request of the Islamic Council, which had limited resources but since then because of its increased capacity had been transferred to the Council.
He alleged that the school had been a propagation place for an Islamic extremist doctrine and that even after the place was put under the care of the Council following disputes, there had been agreements between conflicting sides on the need to govern with a board.
The Awolia religious school previously was handled by the Islamic Relief Fund, a United Kingdom registered international charity consisting of a family of 15 aid agencies that run with a stated aim of alleviating the suffering of the poor people before they had a falling out with the Islamic council.
Abebe surmised that the goal of some of the protestors and those “seeking to represent them” is to destabilize the country with a political aim masquerading as a religious grievance.
In related news, travellers from neighboring regions especially those coming from Adama and neighboring cities such as Bishoftu reported that on July 20th there was an unusual strict check up of travelers entering Addis Ababa by Federal Police.
One person travelling from Bishoftu to Addis Ababa for work said she was stopped and frisked six times during the morning and those without an identification card were checked thoroughly.
* Originally published on Capital Ethiopia, on June 23, 2012, titled “Silent protests in mosques”.
Check the Ethiopian Muslims archive for related posts.