CAIRO - Ethiopian Muslims have gone into huge protests calling to boycott a Sunday's vote to choose a new Islamic Council, accusing the government of trying to influence the council and install a set of pliable leaders.
Let our voices be heard, shouted the protesters, as they waved yellow flags fashioned out of bits of paper and plastic, immediately after Friday prayer at Al-Anawar Mosque, The Hindu reported on Saturday, October 6.
Free our leadersâ¦ There can be no election with threats.
Marching through the Mercato open market in the Ethiopian capital, Muslim activists led the protester calling to boycott the Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council elections next Sunday, October 7.
The boycott calls were urged amid fears that the vote will be skewed by the government to install a set of pliable leaders; an allegation denied by the Ethiopian government.
Friday's protests came in the backdrop of increasing unrest among Muslims who feel that the constitutionally secular federal government is interfering in matters of prayers and religion.
Muslims accuse the government of spearheading a campaign in collaboration with Majlis to indoctrinate their community with the ideology of a sect called "Ahbash".
The government of late Ethiopian Premier Meles Zenawi has put the Ahbash in charge of the religious affairs of Ethiopia's Muslims.
Muslims say the government move is in violation of the constitution, which prevents the government interference in religious affairs.
Muslims also accuse the Ahbash of launching an "indoctrination program" in predominantly Muslim areas, forcing people to attend "religious training" camps or risk police interrogation and possible arrest.
The government views us with suspicion, said a Muslim activist seeking anonymity.
But we do not support the extremists like al-Qaeda, we are protesting for our rights.
The protesters on Friday accused Ethiopian government of trying to weaken Islam in Ethiopia.
The Ethiopian Islamic Affairs Supreme Council is trying forcefully to impose a sect called Al Ahbash, a young Muslim activist who has attended many of the protests told The Hindu.
The aim of this is said to be to control extremism but the reality is to weaken Islam in Ethiopia both economically and socially.
Protesters also alleged that the government was forcing people to vote on Sunday to lend legitimacy to the election.
The city administration is telling people they will be kicked out of government housing if they don't vote, a protester said.
The government has categorically denied these charges.
This is a strictly religious affair. Under our Constitution, the government is prohibited from entering religious affairs, said Shimelis Kemal, State Minister for Communication Affairs, describing allegations regarding Al Ahbash as wide propaganda.
Founded by Ethiopian-Lebanese scholar Sheikh Abdullah al-Harari, Ahbash is seen by the West as a "friendly alternative" to Wahabi ideology, which the West sees as extreme and militant.
Muslims say Ahbash imams are being brought over from Lebanon to fill the Majlis and teach Ethiopians that Wahabis are non-Muslims.
According to government 2007 census, Muslims make up about 34 percent of Ethiopia's population.
Yet, other sources put Ethiopia Muslims at about 50% of the country's population.