Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi blamed a little-known local Muslim group of preaching religious intolerance in an area where Christian churches were burnt last week, killing one person.
Authorities have said up to 50 churches have been burnt and around 3 000 Christians displaced since March 2 when Muslim youths attacked the community around Asendabo, some 360 km (215 miles) west of the capital Addis Ababa.
The US-based International Christian Concern said youths had accused Christians of desecrating the Koran, Reuters reports.
The group, which says it aims to fight the persecution of Christians, accused local security officials of doing nothing to stop the attacks.
Meles told a news conference late on Saturday that “elements of the Kawarja sect and other extremists” had been preaching religious intolerance in the area.
“The government has been trying to stop the violence. That has been done quite successfully in spite of the property damage and the death of one Ethiopian,” he said.
International Christian Concern said Kawarja, about whom little is known, aimed to set up an Islamic state in mainly Christian Ethiopia, where Muslims make up a quarter of the population.
More than a dozen members of Ethiopia’s Pentecostal church were killed in the same area in 2006 in similar attacks over desecration charges.
Meles said it was hard to prosecute Islamic extremists.
“We knew that they were peddling this ideology of intolerance, but it was not possible for us to stop them administratively because they are within their rights,” he said.
“If we can find some association between what they are doing by way of preaching and what happened by way of violence, then of course we can take them to court.”