Worthy Christian News » Christian Persecution » Christian Persecution - Asia » Indonesia: Religious Tensions Rise in West Papua
Authorities must act now to prevent Malukan-style conflict, report says.
DUBLIN (Compass Direct News) -- Authorities in West Papua, Indonesia, must move fast to prevent tension between Christian and Muslim communities escalating into a Malukan-style conflict, according to a recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG).
The neighboring Maluku islands erupted into bitter sectarian warfare between 1999 and 2002, leaving thousands dead, injured or homeless.
While the conflict in West Papua dates back to Indonesia’s takeover of the region in 1963, several developments from the beginning of the decade have heightened tension in recent months, according to ICG’s June 16 report, “Communal Tensions in Papua.”
New, less tolerant strands of Islam and Christianity have gained influence since 2002, creating fissures within and between religious communities, the report claims. Also, faith issues have acquired a political dimension, since many Papuan Christians believe a Special Autonomy Law passed in 2001 was too limited, while Muslim migrants firmly support centralized rule from Jakarta and accuse Christians of separatism.
Most importantly, an influx of Muslim migrants, initially sponsored by the government, has changed demographics in the region, with Papuan Christians now fearing they will become a minority.
Indonesian troops and special police forces assigned to the region to quell independence movements have tortured and sometimes executed Christians suspected of involvement with the Free Papua Movement, according to other reports from local human rights organizations.
Manokwari: Trouble in ‘Gospel City’
Two incidents covered in the ICG report illustrate the potential for violence. In May, church leaders in the city of Manokwari – commonly referred to as “Gospel City” – circulated the second draft of a regulation designed to protect Christian values and traditions, drawing heavy criticism.
The “Regulation on Designating Villages for Mental Spiritual Guidance” came in response to a proposed mosque building project on Mansiman Island, considered the “birthplace” of Christianity in the region since the first two missionaries to West Papua landed there in 1855.
A local politician first proposed building a Grand Mosque and Islamic study center on the island in 2005. Uproar followed, with Christians asking whether Muslims would be offended if the most visible landmark in the deeply Islamic province of Aceh was a church.
The Manokwari District Interchurch Cooperation Board issued a statement decrying the “discriminatory and unjust” stance of the national government towards Christianity, pointing to a total of 991 attacks against Christians, churches and individuals throughout Indonesia dating back to 1949; trauma suffered by Christians in conflict areas such as the Malukus, and legal discrimination against churches under a 1969 Joint Ministerial Decree (SKB) regulating the establishment of places of worship.
Civil authorities then rejected the building proposal submitted by the mosque committee, citing objections from church leaders.
In response, Muslims claimed that Islam had come to Papua long before Christian missionaries arrived. One Muslim also told ICG that the rejection of a “house of Allah” provided grounds for jihad.
Jihadi groups outside Papua were quick to offer assistance. Three Javanese followers of the infamous Abu Bakar Ba’asyir traveled to Manokwari in December 2005 and drew up a hit list of 38 pastors leading the campaign against the Great Mosque. A similar group from the Malukus arrived in January 2006, but local Muslims turned both groups away.
The Evangelical Christian Church (GKI) of Papua decided in February 2006 that a regulation should be adopted to preserve Manokwari’s status as the Gospel City. In March the GKI circulated a first draft of the “Regulation on Implementing Mental Spiritual Guidance.” Muslims believed the draft law referred to the proselytizing and conversion of Muslims, which further inflamed tensions.
Both Muslim and Christian leaders denounced the draft regulation, but it became a national issue, with major Muslim newspapers portraying it as an attack on Islam. Another jihadi group, the Laskar Jundullah in South Sulawesi, briefly discussed launching a new jihad in Manokwari, spreading rumors that the draft regulation was a foreign plot to combine Maluku and Papua into a single independent Christian state.
On the contrary, Christians fear they will be increasingly marginalized in the region, according to John Barr, general secretary for the international mission wing of the Uniting Church in Australia.
“Christianity came to West Papua more than 100 years ago, and most Papuans eagerly adopted it to the point that Christianity reinforces and now underlines their identity,” he told Compass. “Where Papuan culture appears to be in the process of being eroded, Christianity serves to maintain local values and provide Papuans with a strong sense of who they are.”
Formally declaring Manokwari a Gospel City is an attempt to address this despair, he explained. “It’s an attempt to be proactive about the future.”
Kaimana’s Iron Christmas Tree
Tensions also erupted unexpectedly last year in Kaimana, a district historically known for religious tolerance, with Christians sitting on mosque development committees and Muslims assisting in the construction of churches, according to ICG.
In October 2007, during the Muslim celebration of Ramadan, the Protestant Church of Indonesia in Papua (GPI) scheduled a fund-raising concert at a school situated between two mosques. Muslims were incensed when plans for the concert emerged, but mosque leaders averted a clash by asking GPI to reschedule the event for 9 p.m., after evening prayers.
In December 2007, GPI leaders erected an iron Christmas tree crowned with a Star of David in a public park near the town center, claiming they had a permit to do so from the deputy district head. Local Muslims were furious, and a crowd quickly gathered. Rumors spread that Christian neighborhoods would be attacked and panic took hold, with some Christians fleeing into the jungle.
District head Hasan Achmad intervened and negotiated a compromise; the tree could remain in the park until January 21.
Tensions remained high, however, with GPI leaders calling an emergency meeting on December 28 following rumors of impending attacks on Christians. The rumors came to nothing, and on January 21 the GPI reluctantly complied with orders to remove the tree. By then, however, mutual trust and acceptance had been shattered.
Both Sides Aggrieved
ICG concludes that potential for communal conflict is high because both sides consider themselves aggrieved.
In some areas, local governments have controlled tensions by pairing a Papuan Christian district leader with a non-Papuan Muslim deputy. This has proved effective in some areas, but not all, the report stated.
ICG suggests that in areas where conflict is greatest, indigenous Papuan Muslim organizations such as the Papuan Muslim Council might play a bridging role.
Other West Papua observers such as Barr and Elizabeth Kendal of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) believe ICG’s report is a useful analysis but somewhat biased toward the Muslim point of view.
In her analysis, Kendal remarked on ICG’s unquestioning acceptance of Muslim claims that Islam came first to West Papua, and that Christian colonialists then proceeded to obliterate all traces of Islam, despite no evidence that Islam ever became popular in the region. She also criticized the report for suggesting that the development of indigenous Muslim scholars and teachers was a realistic solution to the problem.
“The report forecasts that if Muslim-versus-Christian clashes do erupt, they will remain localized,” Kendal added. “I do not agree with that assessment. The jihadist groups, the pro-Indonesian militias and in particular the Indonesian military are looking for an excuse to unleash violent repression and ethnic-religious cleansing. Any clash therefore has incendiary potential.”
According to ICG, there are multiple reasons for the breakdown in trust throughout West Papua.
New strands of Christianity and Islam began arriving in West Papua early this decade, bringing voices not necessarily in tune with the traditional tolerance of Papuans. Salafism, an ultra-Puritan method of practicing Islam, eventually made it to Papua after spreading rapidly through Indonesia in the 1990s. Some Papuan Muslims who had studied elsewhere in Indonesia or in the Middle East also returned with new, less tolerant interpretations of their faith.
Newer evangelical churches such as the Congregation of the Holy Way, Bethel and Bethany churches began to hold mass religious rallies, locally known as KKRs, in public places. Often these meetings featured testimonies from Muslim converts. Muslim residents objected to the KKRs and responded by publicly questioning basic tenets of the Christian faith, such as the divinity of Jesus, further compounding tensions.
An influx of both Christian and Muslim refugees from the neighboring Maluku islands brought its own problems, with refugees sharing personal accounts and video clips of bloody confrontations in Ambon and Seram. Video clips of beheadings in Iraq also circulated on cell phones, reinforcing negative images of Islam in some circles.
Human rights organizations began to report sightings of jihadi groups and training camps in West Papua. ICG’s report contends that most if not all of these “jihadis” were members of a non-violent Islamic missionary group, Jemaah Tabligh, active in Papua since 1988. Jemaah Tabligh members dress as the Moluccan Laskar Jihad members do, with men in white robes and turbans and women in full veils rather than headscarves.
Kendal, who analyzed ICG’s report for the WEA, noted that the source who rejected reports of jihadi sightings was identified in the footnotes as a “Muslim activist.”
Ja’far Umar Thalib, the leader of Laskar Jihad, admitted that some of his men arrived in Papua in late 2000 to assess “the needs of Muslims.” Thalib then sent approximately 200 men to Papua in 2001 to “crush” the Papuan independence movement, which he claimed was a Christian conspiracy to secede from Indonesia and form a Christian state.
The Indonesian government launched a migration program in 1975 that brought an influx of Muslim citizens into the mostly Christian territory of West Papua, sparking Papuan fears of a religious takeover. The program ended in 1985, but migration continued; of approximately 2.5 million inhabitants of West Papua today, 1 million are migrants.
Officially, Christians still make up about 56 percent of the total population and 95 percent of the indigenous population in West Papua, according to Jim Elmslie of the West Papua Project at the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Sydney, Australia. But both communities dispute these figures. Christians claim the number of Muslim migrants is deliberately downplayed, while Muslims claim authorities have combined animist and Christian populations to project a Christian majority.
When the Indonesian government took control of the region in 1963, it passed a new law declaring all land and natural resources property of the Indonesian state. This measure gave migrants and multinational oil companies access to Papuan ancestral lands, sparking angry demonstrations from indigenous landowners, many of them Christians.
Toward a Solution
While potential for conflict is high, Barr said a church-sponsored human rights group, ELSHAM, is already conducting workshops in peace education and conflict resolution, and churches have worked hard to rectify abuses of both Muslim and Christian communities.
This has occasionally put Christians at risk. For example, Kendal reports that in January 2007, Indonesian police occupied the headquarters of the indigenous Kingmi church in Jayapura, accusing the Rev. Benny Giay and the Rev. Noakh Nawipa of engineering an attack on a gold and copper mine in August 2002 in support of the independence movement. Giay and Nawipa rejected the allegations and said they were targeted because of their non-violent work for peace and justice in West Papua.
“ICG’s report does raise critical questions,” Barr concluded. “Papua is part of Indonesia, and Christians need to live alongside Muslims in a harmonious society. The alternative is horrific, and the Malukus bear witness to this.”
Timeline of Events in West Papua, Indonesia
An Indian trader brought Islam to Papua on this date, according to a Papuan Muslim preacher. Other scholars claim the Bacan sultanate in North Maluku brought Islam to Papua in 1569.
Two German missionaries landed on Mansiman Island, off the coast of Manokwari in West Papua.
Dutch colonialists handed the territory of West Papua (then known as West Irian Jaya) to the United Nations, which then gave it to Indonesia on condition that a referendum on integration be held by December 1969. Following the takeover, Indonesia passed a new law declaring all West Papuan land and natural resources as the property of the Indonesian state.
Under the ”Act of Free Choice,” 1,025 hand-picked West Papuans voted unanimously – under great duress – for integration with Indonesia.
Indonesia’s Suharto government launched a migration program that would last until 1985. Thousands of Indonesian Muslims migrated to West Papua, both under this program and through voluntary migration.
The Suharto government collapsed, sparking independence demonstrations in Papua.
1999 – 2002
Violent conflict in the Maluku islands sparked a refugee influx into West Papua. Jihadi groups also established a limited presence in West Papua.
Indonesia granted limited autonomy to West Papua with a Special Autonomy Law; today, many provisions of this law have yet to be implemented.
Indonesian Special Forces abducted and murdered popular Papuan leader Theys Eluay.
The Indonesian government appointed Timbul Silaen to head the police force in West Papua. U.N. prosecutors had previously indicted Silaen for his role in war crimes and crimes against humanity while he headed the Indonesian police force in East Timor in 1999.
A politician in Manokwari promised Muslim voters that he would build a Grand Mosque and Islamic study center on Mansiman Island.
Civic authorities rejected an application for the Grand Mosque building project.
Christians in Manokwari demonstrated against the construction project.
Jihadis from Java arrived in West Papua and draw up a hit list of 38 pastors who campaigned against the mosque project. Local Muslims rejected their offer of assistance.
Police accused the indigenous Papuan Kingmi church of being the religious arm of the Free Papua Movement (OPM).
Church leaders in Manokwari outlined a draft “Regulation on Implementing Mental Spiritual Guidance,” creating a national uproar.
Christians in Kaimana erected an iron Christmas Tree topped with a Star of David in a public park, infuriating local Muslims.
Christians removed the Christmas Tree from the park as agreed in a meeting with town leaders.
Church leaders in Manokwari circulated a second draft of their “Regulation on Designating Villages for Mental Spiritual Guidance.”
Christians celebrated the 100th anniversary of local Christianity. In the same month, Muslims held a seminar entitled “Awakening of Irian Muslims” to assert the prior arrival of Islam in West Papua.
Copyright © 2008 Compass Direct News