Beheading of Christian Schoolgirls Sparks Concerns About Religious Strife

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

( - Indonesian security forces remained on high alert and religious leaders appealed for calm in the nation's Central Sulawesi province following the beheading of three Christian schoolgirls at the weekend.

Community leaders sought to downplay religion as a motivating factor in the crime, although observers noted that the severed head of one of the girls had been found several miles from the scene of the attack, outside a church.

The timing of the attack may also be significant, coming just days before the end of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month. Numerous previous attacks on Christians in Indonesia have occurred during Ramadan.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono himself suggested that some elements in the Sulawesi city of Poso were bent on "maintain[ing] the hostility and conflict" of the past.

In Sulawesi and another province, Maluku, thousands of people died in clashes between Muslims and Christians between 1999 and 2002. (A minor dispute in Maluku at the end of Ramadan triggered the violence in 1999.) The two regions have sizeable Christian populations in what is otherwise a predominantly Muslim nation.

Government-sponsored peace agreements eventually were signed in a bid to end the violence, which was characterized by some as "sectarian" and by others as part of an orchestrated anti-Christian "jihad" by Islamist fighters shipped in from Indonesia's most populous island, Java.

Despite the peace deals, violence has occasionally flared since then in Sulawesi, where 22 people were killed in a market place bombing last May. Religious harmony has also been strained by the forced closure of scores of churches elsewhere in the country, and the jailing of several Christians.

Just last week a group called Indonesian Churches Together sent out an "SOS" message urging Christians around the world to pray for those in Indonesia facing an "escalation of terrorism, intimidation and persecution," the Assist news service reported.

Saturday's grisly murders happened as a group of teenaged girls were walking through a cocoa plantation to their Christian high school near Poso.

Men armed with machetes attacked them, hacking off the heads of three of them and severely wounding a fourth. The survivor, identified as 14-year-old Noviana Malewa, is in hospital.

Local reports cite unnamed police officers as saying the surviving witness said there had been six attackers, wearing black clothing and masks.

The chairman of the Indonesian Communion of Churches (PGI), the Rev. Andreas Yewangoe, urged the government to track down the perpetrators and discover their motives.

He said PGI officials were to visit Poso to appeal for calm, amid fears some Christians may be planning retaliatory attacks as Muslims prepare to end Ramadan with the holiday of Eid al-Fitr on Thursday.

Leading Muslim figures condemned the killings which Din Syamsuddin, chairman of the huge Islamic organization Muhammadiyah, sought to distance from religious rivalry, blaming them on a "third party."

Jakarta earlier sent in hundreds of extra paramilitary police and stepped up security patrols. Yudhoyono also dispatched senior security officials to Poso.

"Some Indonesian Christians are doubtful about how much will be achieved, given the security forces' record of reluctance to protect Christians or to bring their attackers to justice," reported the Barnabas Fund, a Christian organization which works closely with Christians in Indonesia and other Muslim countries.

It said the Rev. Rinaldy Damanik, a local Christian leader, served two years' imprisonment until his release a year ago after being indicted "on a trumped up charge, simply for trying to publicize the anti-Christian violence in Central Sulawesi."

Damanik, who denied the charges of owning weapons without permission, is currently touring Britain speaking on religious persecution in his homeland.

Another campaign group, International Christian Concern, argued that behind the violence in Indonesia lay the funding of radical mosques, imams and religious schools by Saudi Arabia.

"Although [Indonesian] Muslims and Christians had good relations for hundreds of years, since the advent of Saudi influence in Indonesian Islam there has been wave after wave of death and destruction," it said in a statement.

In an editorial published Tuesday, the Jakarta Post warned against what it called "acts of provocation to reignite conflict between Muslims and Christians."

It expressed concern that should violence erupt anew, it may not be restricted to Sulawesi and Maluku but spread to other parts of the world's most populous Muslim country.

"Already, we are seeing signs of uneasiness among non-Muslims because of the government's seemingly constant failure to protect them. And we are seeing signs of growing religious radicalism and even intolerance between religious communities."

The paper said recent developments had raised questions about the commitment and ability of the government "to protect the rights of religious minorities and to enable them to freely practice their faith."

See earlier story:
Indonesian Muslims Support Embattled Christians (Sept. 07, 2005)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow