By Aaron Maasho
ASENDABO, Ethiopia (Reuters) – The hollow chants of “Allahu Akbar!” reverberating from a distance seemed innocuous at first for Abera Gutema, who ventured home quietly from his shop just a short distance away.
Moments later, a large, angry mob of machete-wielding Muslim youths descended on his family’s dwelling and chased him out, before burning and looting his property.
Abera, a Christian, escaped through a back door, clutching his infant son Eyoel in one hand.
By the time the smoke cleared, all that remained of his hard-earned belongings had been reduced to rubble, not to mention the theft of 100,000 birr — his lifetime savings.
“They were our friends, our neighbours with whom we shared everything,” said Abera, his eyes watering with tears.
“I never thought that this day would ever come.”
Such attacks are extremely uncommon in Ethiopia which, according to official figures is about 60 percent Christian and 30 percent Muslim, with smaller faiths making up the remainder.
Churches and mosques sprawl together and, with a history of intermarriage, many Ethiopians boast about a long period of religious tolerance.
Any attempts by religious extremists to exploit sectarian tensions has the potential to destabilise a country seen by the West as a bulwark against Islamic extremism in the Horn of Africa.
Ethiopia’s secular government sent troops into neighbouring Somalia in 2006 to oust an Islamist group who had taken over much of the country.
Abera was one of more than 4,000 members of local Protestant denominations displaced by a rare bout of religious violence earlier this month when Muslims staged a week of attacks in an area about 300 km (200 miles) west of the capital.
Local Imams say the incidents were sparked when word came out that Muslim labourers working at a construction site at a Protestant church claimed to have found pages from the Koran used as toilet paper.
Despite appeals for restraint, they say an angry mob quickly gathered as calls for attacks blared from the loudspeakers of nearby mosques.
A total of 69 churches, a Bible school and an office were eventually burned to the ground, and one Christian was killed.
“It was shocking. I’ve heard them say those who don’t take part were not true Muslims,” said Abera, now housed in a makeshift shelter along with his wife and child.
Though unusual, similar attacks took place in 2006 in the same area, leaving dozens of Christians dead. Back then, as now, Ethiopia blamed extremist groups.
“We believe that there are elements of the Kawarja sect and other extremists who have been preaching for religious intolerance in the area,” Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told a news conference last week.
Little is known of the Kawarja, but officials say they have been whipping up hatred and inciting violence against non-Muslims locally for the past few years.
Some say the Kawarja’s aim is to establish an Islamic state in a country that has never had a Muslim leader in modern history.
More than a hundred suspected culprits have been apprehended so far, and authorities are now keen to build the confidence of residents of Asendabo, a town of 16,000 in western Ethiopia, and several joint meetings have already been held.
“I don’t expect it to happen again. People here understand the importance and benefits of coexisting,” said town mayor Teshome Degefu.
Just metres away, the few Christians who chose to return to their damaged homes believed those responsible were a tiny minority.
“Muslims here have donated money and are rebuilding the homes of displaced Christians. They have rejected the extremists’ agenda,” Teshome added.
Pastor Tesfaye Abadura, whose Kale Hiwot church bore the brunt of the attacks, also blamed the Kawarja.
“Not all Muslims are dangerous,” he said.
Some residents suspect those blaming extremist groups hoped to avert further blood-letting by diverting attention away from real tensions between the communities.
“I don’t believe they (Kawarja) exist in our society (in Asendabo),” 65-year old local imam Hajji Mahmoud Adam told Reuters.
“The Protestants are responsible for desecrating the Koran. But that said, I don’t believe the Muslims did the right thing,” he added.
While officials reject fears the violence could spread further afield, doubts linger whether either community is ready to forgive the other.
“We worry that a Christian child will grow up with an impression that all Muslims are enemies, while a Muslim child will grow up thinking that attacking Christians is justifiable,” one Protestant said.