Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Splits have emerged in the Indonesian government on how to tackle Islamic militants accused of spearheading anti-Christian violence in two parts of the country.
At the weekend, the minister responsible for security ordered the removal of the Laskar Jihad group from the violence-torn Maluku Islands (Moluccas), but the vice-president demonstrated his support for the group Monday by officially opening a meeting of its activists.
Vice President Hamzah Haz, who also heads the country's largest Muslim party, told the gathering of almost 2,000 Laskar Jihad members that the fighters should only leave Maluku after a Christian separatist group there is disbanded.
According to Christians in the Maluku capital, Ambon, the Maluku Sovereignty Front (FKM), which advocates independence for the south Maluku area, has only a few hundred supporters and is widely repudiated by the broader Christian community.
FKM leader Alex Manuputty and 16 supporters were arrested recently and may face subversion charges.
By contrast, an estimated 3,000 Laskar Jihad volunteers were shipped into the province in recent years from Indonesia's main island of Java, with the security forces doing nothing to stop them. They have been widely blamed for an escalation of Christian-Muslim violence, which has cost at least 6,000 lives since 1999, displacing many thousands more.
Laskar Jihad fighters were also implicated in anti-Christian violence in another province with a large Christian population, Sulawesi.
The government sponsored peace agreements in Sulawesi last December and in Maluku in February. The ceasefire held in Sulawesi, but several violations in Maluku culminated in a raid on a Christian village near Ambon late last month, in which suspected Javanese Muslims murdered 12 people.
The attack came hours after Laskar Jihad leader Jafar Umar Thalib told a gathering of Muslims in Ambon they should ignore the peace deal and wage war on Christian separatists.
After days of vacillating, the authorities arrested Jafar on May 5 on suspicion of incitement, and several days later, Political and Security Affairs Minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono announced that Laskar Jihad members would be expelled from Maluku. The FKM would also be disbanded, he said.
But Vice-President Hamzah has adopted a different stance. Last week he visited Jafar in custody, in what he said was a show of solidarity with a Muslim brother.
And speaking after officially opening a national Laskar Jihad gathering in East Java, Hamzah said Monday the FKM should first be disbanded before any action was taken against the Islamic organization.
He also told the militants that Jafar was not a terrorist, and that terrorism did not exist in Indonesia.
Jafar's deputy, Ayip Syarifuddin, told the gathering the militia would only pull out of Maluku if there was a guarantee of safety for Muslims living there.
The Barnabas Fund, an aid organization active in Indonesia and other countries where Christians are under threat, called the announcement of Laskar Jihad's withdrawal "significant" and "encouraging."
But it cautioned that it "remains to be seen whether Laskar Jihad members will indeed be expelled from the islands or if Jafar Umar Thalib will continue to be held or charged."
Hamzah's visit to Jafar in prison had "outraged" Christians, confirming doubts about the government's will to enforce peace in the Malukus, Barnabas Fund said.
President Megawati Sukarnoputri's government has been criticized by Christian campaigners and foreign governments for its apparent reluctance to crack down on Islamic terrorism, manifested both in the anti-Christian violence and in alleged links by some Indonesian radicals to international terror networks, including al Qaeda.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom in an annual report released last week accused the government of allowing Laskar Jihad to operate freely in the Malukus.
It urged Washington to pressure Indonesia to disarm the group, which it said "represents a significant threat to the peace and stability of all Indonesia, particularly to its pluralistic Muslim traditions and its practice of tolerance towards religious minorities."
In recent months, Jakarta has defended its inaction by saying it lacked the type of security legislation, which has enabled neighboring countries like Malaysia and Singapore to detain terror suspects without trial.
But analysts say Megawati is walking a tightrope. Although most citizens in the world's biggest Islamic country are considered moderate, some have taken to the streets to demonstrate on a range of issues, from the U.S.-led campaign in Afghanistan to Israeli policies.
Last Thursday several hundred, including leading extremists, rallied in Jakarta to demand Jafar's release and call for the destruction of the U.S. and Israel.
Jafar, who is of Yemeni origin, claims to have met Osama bin Laden while both were fighting with the anti-Soviet mujahedeen in Afghanistan in the late 1980s.
Despite eyewitness accounts of Laskar Jihad fighters sporting posters extolling the al-Qaeda leader, Jafar claims to have no link to bin Laden, saying he rejects his interpretation of Islam.
He also said an al Qaeda envoy had offered Laskar Jihad funding before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the U.S., but had been turned down.
Int'l Christian Groups Demand Action Against Muslim Militants In Indonesia (May 3, 2002)
Christians Killed In Renewed Attacks In Indonesia (Apr. 29, 2002)
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