Ethiopians Fear for Their Interfaith Oasis

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 13, 2007

DESE, Ethiopia -- Rumors were spreading up and down the narrow streets here, in front of the Noah pharmacy and Millennium Cafe, through the rectangular mosques and domed Orthodox churches of this northern Ethiopian city.

Muslims were said to be training to attack Christians. Christians were said to be stockpiling weapons for an assault on Muslims. Fears of an all-out religious melee became so rampant last year that the archbishop of the Orthodox Christian church sent spies to a mosque thought to be harboring Islamic fighters.

"They were saying through the loudspeakers that 'the soldiers of Allah are brave' and telling Muslims to take action," the archbishop, Abba Athanasium, said recently.

But then something unusual happened across the rolling green mountains in this part of Africa so defined by its volatility: nothing.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, concern about Islamic extremism has been rising across the Horn of Africa, and notably in Ethiopia, a country where Orthodox Christianity is often associated with national identity but whose population is nearly half Muslim, according to Ethiopian demographers and U.S. officials.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi cited radicalism within an Islamic movement that had taken power in neighboring Somalia, and its potential to spread across the border, as the main reason Ethiopia invaded that country in December.

Just two months earlier, an incident near the southern Ethiopian town of Jima underlined those fears. Though the motive remains a matter of debate, several days of violence between Muslims and Christians swept through the area, ending with 19 people killed and five churches and 600 houses burned, according to a government report.

Police eventually contained the violence, but the gruesome aftermath of a massacre of several worshipers in a church was captured on videotape by an evangelical Christian relief group investigating the situation. Soon, bootlegged copies -- including an edited version superimposed with such phrases as "Look at what they are doing to us" -- began showing up in markets across the country, including more than 300 miles away in Dese, where vendors began selling them alongside Britney Spears videos.

The rumors followed: The next religious battleground would be Dese, a long, narrow city of a thousand rusted roofs situated in a crevice in the grassy Tossa mountains.

In many ways, Dese is a hodgepodge of a place, where streets are framed by arched doorways built by Arab traders, striped awnings hung by Italian occupiers, and boxy lacquered mini-malls with cafes where large-screen TVs are tuned to al-Jazeera and Randy Travis songs occasionally drift out of open doors.

Above all, though, Dese is a symbol of Ethiopia's peaceful religious intermingling, a characteristic that is found to varying degrees across a country where nationalism or ethnicity or even devotion to soccer tends to trump religious fervor.

For centuries, Muslims and Christians here have lived in the same neighborhoods, celebrated each other's holidays, intermarried and blended religions with indigenous beliefs. Relationships are cemented through such Ethiopian institutions as the idir -- groups of neighbors, often religiously mixed, that raise money to pay for funerals.

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