Ethiopia religious holiday unusually quiet

Will Connors
Middle East Times
ADDIS ABABA -- Unlike more violent episodes last year, and despite a few rock-throwers, Tuesday's religious celebration in Ethiopia was held largely without incident.
Ceremonies for the Orthodox Christian holiday Meskel, honoring Queen Elena's "finding of the true cross" in the fourth century, were held in downtown Addis Ababa, and although several men were detained by police for throwing rocks or chanting anti-government slogans, the day was calm compared to the post-election riots of late 2005.
Many residents stayed away from the celebration at first out of fear of violence, but as the day wore on the area surrounding Meskel Square filled up beyond capacity, leading some onlookers to resort to creative methods of gaining a vantage point, including climbing up the scaffolding of unused nearby billboard supports.
The government took several measures to ensure that a more peaceful holiday was observed, including starting the proceedings an hour and a half early, and limiting the speakers and religious presentations to a few minutes each.
Perhaps the most important step taken by officials, however, was limiting the security forces to city police officers only, rather than using the much hated blue-camouflaged federal police.
"The federals, they are dogs. Dogs," said one fiery young man who did not give his name, adding, "The city police, we don't mind them. They are our brothers."
The brown-uniformed city police, most with riot-gear helmets and batons, were everywhere. Officers were positioned every five meters (16 feet) in the densely packed viewing area, directing traffic and watching spectators attentively.
Plainclothes officers were also scattered throughout the crowd, listening for potentially incendiary conversations. Towards the end of the ceremony, a young man discussing last year's violence was identified by a non-uniformed man and taken away. Whether the identifier was an officer or a civilian was not clear.
Another moment that highlighted the unusual calm of the crowd was during a speech by the Orthodox Church's patriarch, Abune Paulos. A controversial figure who has survived at least one known assassination attempt, Paulos' speech last year was met by a chorus of jeers and boos and led to violent riots. This year, however, his speech rumbled out over the loudspeakers and was received with a resolute silence.
When the culminating moment of the ceremony (the burning of a large bonfire, or Damera) began, the atmosphere tensed. Small groups began chanting anti-government slogans, and a few rocks were thrown. Police reacted quickly, converging on the trouble spots and detaining several dozen men.
Later, a state-owned gas station a half-kilometer away from the ceremonies was vandalized by several stone-toting youths. Two station guards were injured and a gas pump was damaged before another guard, who had a pistol, fired a shot into the air to scare the young men off.
One of the guards, an elderly man, was hit in the leg by a rock and his wound was bleeding. He said that police arrived shortly after the youths ran away, but he was not sure if any were apprehended.
Public gatherings of any kind in Ethiopia have been platforms for disaffected citizens to voice their displeasure with the ruling government since controversial May, 2005 elections. And though this day's events were calm in comparison to demonstrations last year in which over 80 people were killed and some 10,000 arrested, the desire to protest appears to be alive and well.

Government officials were not immediately available for comment.

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