Embattled Christians in Indonesia Fear Return of Jihad Fighters

By Patrick Goodenough | April 29, 2004 | 8:15pm EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Christians in Indonesia's Maluku province and Christian campaigners abroad have reacted with alarm to reports that a disbanded Islamist militia may re-form and deploy to the troubled region amid a new outbreak of violence there.

Indonesia's cabinet was meeting Thursday to discuss the violence. At least 36 people have been killed in the city of Ambon since Sunday, in the most serious deterioration there since thousands died between 1999 and 2002.

As was the case during the earlier carnage, various players are again disputing the reasons for the renewed violence, and where the blame lies.

The latest trouble began on Sunday, a day marked by members of a small, mostly Christian organization as the anniversary of a short-lived separatist state in the 1950s.

Local Muslims angered by the display of separatist flags - and by the sight of policemen providing security to the Maluku Sovereignty Front (FKM) supporters - reportedly began to throw stones.

The situation deteriorated and police opened fire, according to local media and witness accounts. Several buildings, including a church and a U.N. office, were damaged by fire.

Among the incidents, the director of an evangelical seminary in Ambon, Septer Sanabuky, was stopped Sunday while traveling on a motorcycle with a student, Berti Manopo, according to the Barnabas Fund, a Christian organization involved in Indonesia. A mob abducted the two and their bodies were later found, decapitated, it said.

The following days saw sporadic incidents of violence, including shootings and the torching of homes. After police reinforcements were sent in, two policemen were shot dead by sniper fire.

Christians and Muslims living near the border between the divided communities have fled their homes, with some taking shelter respectively in a church and a mosque. The U.N. has evacuated staff from the area.

Some Christians and some Muslims alike have accused the police of taking sides with the other community.

Christians have disputed the notion -- cited by some government officials -- that the violence is between FKM supporters and nationalists who were fighting to protect the "undivided republic" against separatism.

The Indonesian Communion of Churches (PGI) in Jakarta said in a statement that the "unjust" interpretation of who is involved and why "legitimizes the continuation of violence by the security forces, by the opposing parties and by those who declare themselves to be in solidarity with one of both parties."

Cornelius Bohm, a Catholic priest attached to a diocesan crisis center in Ambon, said the FKM adherents were a small group of several hundred unarmed people, while the attackers could also not be identified as the broader Muslim community.

A limited number of Muslims were using the opportunity to cause havoc, and those who were being attacked included Christians who repudiate the FKM's campaign, he said.

In turn, some Christians also "degrade themselves" and join in the violence.

Bohm said Christians had been seen going in numbers to Ambon police headquarters, singing national songs to prove their allegiance to the state -- and by implication their opposition to the FKM separatism.

"They vehemently declared that Christians are not second-class citizens and have the fundamental right to be protected against terrorists and criminals."

Some Christian campaign groups argue that the violence is part of a wider religious conflict.

The Washington-based rights group International Christian Concern (ICC) Wednesday attributed this week's violence to "a continuation of Muslim persecution of Christians in the world's largest Muslim country that has claimed 9,000 lives in the last five years."

"ICC has been involved in Indonesia during most of the conflict and these attacks are entirely consistent with earlier Muslim attacks that stem from intolerance of other religions," the group said in a statement.

The Barnabas Fund also disputed the portrayal of the clashes as being "between separatist rebels and unionists whose response to an intentionally provocative demonstration is entirely patriotic."

The UK-based group said it was clear that the FKM demonstration was "a cover used by militant Islamists to carry out systematic attacks and further their agenda of radical Islamization for the province."

Rejecting the argument that this was a sectarian conflict with both sides committing "equal atrocities," Barnabas Fund said there was evidence that Muslims among the dead had been shot by police who tried "to stop the Muslim mob by firing at the crowd."

It pointed to charges by Jakarta-based Islamic radicals that police in Ambon had "killed our children."

Militia fears

Of deep concern to Christians are reports that the notorious Laskar Jihad, a Java-based militia heavily involved in the 1999-2002 violence and reported to have been disbanded in late 2002, may be revived and return to Maluku.

The group's head, Jafar Umar Thalib, was quoted by the Indonesian news agency Antara Tuesday as saying he was monitoring the situation and was ready to send thousands of fighters to Ambon to defend the integrity of the unitary state of Indonesia, if security forces were unable to end the violence.

"If police and military forces are unable [to stop the violence] while people in Ambon are helpless, we are ready to come there to help the government defend the country," it quoted Jafar as saying in Jakarta.

Although the 1999-2002 conflict was sparked by a local dispute and involved casualties on both sides as local militia groups clashed, a qualitative change was reported after Laskar Jihad fighters arrived in the province, ostensibly to support Muslims against Christian-instigated violence.

Allegedly trained and armed by sympathetic military officers, the jihad fighters inflicted heavy casualties on the Christian community, prompting thousands to take flight. Some military and police deserters, both Christians and Muslims, were reported to have been involved in some attacks.

A peace accord was eventually negotiated in 2002, and later that year, Jafar announced he was disbanding the militia. Thousands of fighters left Maluku and another violence-torn province, Sulawesi.

The ICC said the Christian community was terrified by the prospect of Laskar Jihad returning.

"They remember the Laskar Jihad Islamic warriors who came to Ambon in 1999 and 2000 resulting in unbelievable atrocities in the name of Allah."

In May 2002, Jafar was arrested and accused of inciting a massacre of Christian villagers near Ambon a month earlier.

Charged with stirring up religious hatred and insulting the president, his trial began in Jakarta in August of that year, but in January 2003 he was acquitted.

Meanwhile religious leaders from various faiths, meeting in Jakarta, have blamed the Ambon violence on unidentified "third parties," and urged security forces to act firmly.

The Jakarta Post quoted some of the leaders calling on the people of Maluku not to be provoked by third parties operating with a political motive.

Bishops Council of Indonesia representative Sigit Pamudji was quoted as saying that, based on experience, "certain parties" were provoking the conflict for their own benefit.

Indonesian security force officers have in the past conceded that individual personnel may have taken sides in the conflict, but denied that the military or police as institutions were involved.

See also:
Christians Decry Acquittal Of Indonesian Jihad Leader (Jan. 31, 2003)

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