ADDIS ABABA - In a shift from decades of support for the horn of Africa country, a US government panel has condemned Ethiopia's massive crackdown on peaceful Muslim protests, accusing Addis Ababa of tightening its grip the country's Muslim population.
"The arrests, terrorism charges and takeover of Ethiopia Islamic Affairs Supreme Council (EIASC) signify a troubling escalation in the government's attempts to control Ethiopia's Muslim community," the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said in a statement cited by Reuters on Friday, November 9.
The arrests also provide further evidence of a decline in religious freedom in Ethiopia, the commission added.
Over the past year, thousands of Muslims have staged weekly mosque sit-ins and street protests in Addis Ababa.
Muslims accuse the government of spearheading a campaign in collaboration with the umbrella Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs (Majlis) to indoctrinate their community with the ideology of a sect called "Ahbash".
Protesters also accuse authorities of fixing elections for the Majlis, the community's main representative body, after jailing Muslim leaders who would have participated in the vote.
To quell the protests, the Ethiopian government launched a major crackdown, arresting scores of Muslim protest leaders.
In July, security forces raided the Awalia Mosque in Addis Ababa, arresting more than 70 Muslims on claims of planning protests.
Among those arrested were the chairman of the committee chosen to be representative of the Muslim community Abubakar Ahmed, spokesman Ahmedin Jebel, and other committee members.
Two local non-governmental organizations were also charged with "rendering support" to terrorism.
Change of Attitude
Supported for years by the West as a bulwark against Islamists in neighboring Somalia, USCIRF's criticism reflected a growing anger with Ethiopia's policies.
"USCIRF has found that repressing religious communities in the name of countering extremism leads to more extremism, greater instability, and possibly violence," commission Chairwoman Katrina Lantos Swett said.
Moreover, Swett called on the US government to raise the issue with Addis Ababa.
Given Ethiopia's strategic importance in the Horn of Africa ... it is vital that the Ethiopian government end its religious freedom abuses and allow Muslims to practice peacefully their faith as they see fit, she added.
Otherwise the government's current policies and practices will lead to greater destabilization of an already volatile region.
Ethiopian officials were unavailable for comment on the statement from the Commission, whose members are appointed by President Barack Obama and senior Congressional Democrats and Republicans.
According to government 2007 census, Muslims make up about 34 percent of Ethiopia's population.
Yet, other sources put Ethiopia's Muslims at about 50 percent of the country's population.
The Ethiopian government's crackdown on Muslims has drawn fierce criticism to the horn of Africa country.
Earlier this November, Amnesty International accused the Ethiopian government of targeting Muslims, arresting and charging them with terrorism offensive for no reason but participating in peaceful protests demanding religious freedoms.