By Aaron Maasho
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - Protesters against government interference in religious affairs staged the latest of a series of mosque sit-ins in the Ethiopian capital on Sunday, saying police had arrested dozens in the run up to this weekend's African Union summit.
Two activists told Reuters the sit-in - in protest at the government's promotion of the moderate Al Ahbash branch of Islam over other doctrines - had already been surrounded by police although there had been no clashes as yet on Sunday.
Online activists, who have been using social media to call for demonstrations, have reported several deaths during previous clashes, and published several pictures of injuries they claim are those of victims.
"They have arrested dozens, even hundreds, of protesters in the past few days, while police fired teargas and fired rounds to disperse the crowd," one activist, calling himself simply Hassan, told Reuters. Two other activists gave similar accounts.
Protests are uncommon in tightly-controlled Ethiopia and the unrest has caused concern in a predominantly Christian nation of 84 million that takes pride in centuries of coexistence.
The government fears hardline Islam is taking root in the Horn of Africa country, which has long been seen by the West as a bulwark against militancy in neighbouring Somalia.
Hassan said the planned sit-ins were held in a number of mosques throughout the capital, including the Awoliya mosque, where the first protests took place late last year.
Government officials were not immediately available for comment on Sunday, but a state news outlet said security authorities have arrested "extremists who tried to disrupt the (AU) summit."
Any attempt to exploit sectarian divides has the potential to destabilise Africa's second most populous country, which is 60 percent Christian and 30 percent Muslim according to a 2009 census.
Also known as the Association of Islamic Charitable Projects, Al Ahbash was founded in the early 1980s by Sheikh Abdullah al Harrari, an Ethiopian cleric who was forced to leave his country for Lebanon in 1950.
Muslim protesters say the government is promoting the ideas of the group, which has few followers among the bulk of Sunni and Sufi-inspired Islam in Ethiopia, through the leadership of the Supreme Council on Islamic Affairs. They say the government is trying to prevent new elections to the Council in aid of promoting Al Ahbash because it opposes ultra-conservative ideology and rejects violence.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has dismissed accusations of interference in the religious domain but often says Islamic hardliners are "peddling ideologies of intolerance".
"It (Al Ahbash) has the right to exist in Ethiopia, but it is unacceptable that the Council tries to impose it on all members of the Muslim community," Abubeker Ahmed, head of an independent Islamic arbitration committee, told Reuters.
(Editing by Duncan Miriri and Patrick Graham)