ADDIS ABABA – ADDIS ABABA – As Muslims worldwide converged for the first Friday prayer in Ramadan, hundreds of Ethiopian Muslims protested against what they perceive as unjustified arrest of 17 of their leaders over terrorism charges a year ago, Agence France Presse (AFP) reported.
"What the government is doing doesn't solve the problem, rather it will worsen the situation," said Mohammad Seman, one of the protesters, speaking at the demonstration.
Protests erupted after Friday prayer at a popular Addis Ababa mosque to demand the release of 17 Muslim leaders arrested last August.
The arrests followed months of protests by Muslims accusing the government of interfering in religious affairs.
They are currently on trial for the charges of an attempt to carry out acts of terrorism.
Muslims say the government is spearheading a campaign in collaboration with the Supreme Council of Islamic Affairs to indoctrinate their community with the ideology of a sect called "Ahbash".
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.
To quell the Muslim protests, the Ethiopian government launched a major crackdown, arresting scores of Muslim protest leaders.
"We want our freedom, we want neutral majlis," said protester Noureddine Ali.
The demonstrators carried banners reading "let our voices be heard," and "we will fight for our religion and rights" at the rally, before police arrested several protestors, according to an AFP reporter at the scene.
Seman said that the government should release the leaders and urged talks with the Muslim community.
"It is better to solve the problem with peaceful means," he said.
The government did not return calls for comment Friday.
Human Rights Watch has urged the government to free the jailed leaders, accusing it of a "brutal crackdown" on protests.
Amnesty International has also condemned what the rights group described as the Ethiopian government’s use of repressive tactics against demonstrators.
Muslims make up about 34 percent of Ethiopia’s population, according to the government’s 2007 census.
But other sources put Ethiopia Muslims at about 50% of the country’s population.