Addis Ababa (AFP) - Ethiopia's influential Orthodox church on Sunday criticised Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed's response to ethnic and religious clashes that left nearly 70 dead, saying he was failing to protect its members.
Violence erupted in the capital Addis Ababa and the outlying Oromia region on Wednesday after a prominent activist accused security forces of trying to orchestrate an attack against him -- a claim police officials denied.
It quickly morphed into clashes and a police official said Friday that 67 people had died in Oromia.
"People are dying and questions are being raised if the government even exists. The people are losing all hope," Father Markos Gebre-Egziabher, a leader in the Orthodox Tewahedo Church, told AFP following a memorial service at Holy Trinity Cathedral in Addis Ababa.
Orthodox Christians make up roughly 40 percent of Ethiopia's 110 million people.
Abiy, the winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize, waited until Saturday night to react. He vowed to bring perpetrators to justice and warned that instability could worsen if Ethiopians didn't unite.
A church spokesman told AFP on Saturday that 52 Orthodox Ethiopians, including two church officials, had been killed -- a toll that AFP could not independently verify.
Fisseha Tekle, a researcher for Amnesty International, said Saturday that Orthodox churches had been attacked in at least three locations, while there was at least one report of a mosque being targeted.
Church leaders met with Defence Minister Lemma Megersa and Deputy Prime Minister Demeke Mekonnen, state-affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporate reported Saturday, though it was unclear what came of the meeting.
At Sunday's memorial service in Addis Ababa, hundreds of worshippers bowed their heads during a moment of silence for the victims.
Father Markos said members of the church were prepared to die in defence of fellow worshippers and church property.
"If they come with machetes, we will go with crosses," he said. "God is with us."
Churchgoer Esubalew Yimam called the government's response and particularly Abiy's statement "disappointing".
"The duty of the government is to protect its citizens, more than development and other things," he said. "Currently we're not seeing that happening."