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Ethiopia Church Attacks Kill Eight

FILE: Map showing location of Shashamene, Ethiopia. Uploaded Feb. 5, 2023
FILE: Map showing location of Shashamene, Ethiopia. Uploaded Feb. 5, 2023

Eight people died in attacks on a church in southern Ethiopia last week, the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission said Friday, amid tensions in the Orthodox community.

"Security forces and their (civilian) collaborators used disproportionate force leaving at least eight dead by either gunshot wounds or beatings," the state body EHRC said.

The numbers injured and imprisoned after the violence at the church in Shashamene, 250 kilometers south of Addis Ababa, were still unknown, it added.

Previous reports from religious media had put the February 4 death toll at three.

The violence erupted against a backdrop of tensions in the ancient Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church after rebel bishops created their own synod in Oromia, the country's most populous region.

"Beatings, intimidation, expulsion from churches, forced restriction of movement and unlawful detentions have been carried out in various areas on individuals," the EHRC statement said.

The unity of the Ethiopian Church, one of the oldest in the world and which accounts for about 40 percent of the country's 115 million population, has been considered under threat since last month's move by rebel clergy.

The Church, headed by Patriarch Abune Mathias for a decade, has declared the breakaway illegal and excommunicated the bishops involved.

The Holy Synod has called for peaceful protests at churches at home and abroad on February 12.

Access to social media was on Thursday "restricted ... amid anti-government protests over a split in the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewhado Church," London-based Netblocks reported.

Access was still difficult on Friday, a resident of the capital told AFP by telephone.

The Church has also accused the government of Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of interfering in its affairs and making comments that effectively recognized the "illegitimate group".

Abiy - who is himself from the Oromo community - had called for the rivals to engage in dialogue and said both sides had their "own truths."

The breakaway bishops accuse the Church of discrimination and linguistic and cultural hegemony, saying congregations in Oromia are not served in their native language, claims rejected by the patriarchate.

Orthodox leaders have long complained of persecution, including the burning of churches several years ago, and relations with the government have been tense in the past, including over the Tigray conflict.