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Religious Liberty Deteriorates During Wahid's Impeachment Crisis

Tuesday, June 12, 2001 | Tag Cloud

by Alex Buchan
June 12, 2001

LONDON (Compass) -- Mobs attacked five East Java churches, and six Ambon Christians were hacked to death in May in a sudden escalation of religious violence being played out in Indonesia against a backdrop of increasing political instability.

Extremist Muslim leader Ja'far Umar Thalib, head of the Laskar Jihad organization, whose members have waged a vicious "holy war" campaign in Maluku province since April 2000, was arrested on May 4 in Surabaya. On May 30, Parliament voted to impeach President Abdurrahman Wahid in Jakarta. Both incidents resulted in each man's supporters taking to the streets in tense and sometimes violent stand-offs with authorities.

The worst anti-Christian violence came predictably enough in eastern Indonesia's Maluku province, when Muslim jihad warriors attacked the mainly Christian neighborhoods of Soa Kecil, Belakang Soya and Karang Panjang in Ambon city on the night of May 15. Heavily armed, the extremists torched dozens of houses and attacked residents, knocking on doors and then bursting in to stab occupants with bayonets. Six people were slain and 17 others severely wounded. Two attackers also died.

Hard questions are being asked of the military presence in the area, since the attack coincided with a five-minute blackout and attackers managed to sneak past three security posts undetected. Ambon's Christians have long accused the military of conniving with the Muslim extremists, a position reinforced when two panzer vehicles were driven to the area to evacuate a visiting Dutch ambassador. On learning he was not there, the vehicles turned back as the military unit made no attempt to stop the fighting.

Violence spread to the more populous island of Java on May 29 when Muslim supporters of embattled President Wahid ran through the streets in Pasuruan, protesting the manipulation of Parliament by his opponents to impeach him.

Wahid, a Muslim cleric, is the head of the 30 million member Nadhlatul Ulama (NU), the largest Muslim association in the country. He enjoys fanatical support from this mainly rural and less educated community, although he himself is a moderate Muslim. Under his guidance, the NU is often at odds with more extremist Muslim groups.

NU mobs took to the streets, and in the ensuing melee in Pasuruan, one church was completely destroyed and four others vandalized. The razed church was from the Protestant Church of West Indonesia.

However, it is not clear who committed the violence. Local sources maintain that mobs from a more extremist and anti-NU Muslim party -- PAN -- took advantage of the anarchic situation to attack the churches, and some were even driven off by NU militias.

The specter of countrywide violence looms large following Parliament's vote to impeach Wahid on May 30. In August, a special legislative body, the People's Consultative Assembly, will vote to finally force Wahid to step down.

If Wahid cannot convince his main political ally, Megawati Sukarnoputri, to back him, he will likely fall. As the current vice president and leader of the largest political party, Megawati has withdrawn support for Wahid in recent months, which helped precipitate the current crisis.

NU supporters, however, believe Wahid is also a victim of the plotting of his Muslim enemies, especially Amien Rais, who heads another huge rival Muslim organization called Muhammadiyah. NU supporters have vowed not to allow Wahid to be removed, and the possibility of rival Muslim organizations erupting into major violence is a chilling one. As a Christian pastor in Jakarta warned, "We pray for peace, but expect more trouble -- as always, we are caught in the middle of a power struggle that is nothing to do with us."

The arrest and detention of Laskar Jihad leader Ja'far Umar Thalib on May 4 was a long time coming. But he was not arrested for sending his jihad warriors to Maluku. Thalib declared Islamic law in Ambon on March 10, and his supporters have apparently carried out four death penalties of other Muslims, including one by stoning, in accord with this ruling. But this ruling is contrary to Indonesian civil law, which does not recognize Islamic law. Ironically, Thalib has been detained on this technicality, not for his calls to forcibly convert or slaughter Christians.

Christian leaders in Maluku have called for the arrest of Laskar Jihad leader Ustad Muhammad Attamimi, who is based in Ambon and masterminds the campaign of terror. Attamimi is using a "hate-radio" station to broadcast provocative speeches in which, according to Fr. Bohm of the Catholic Diocese of Ambonia, he "insists that any Muslim who fosters reconciliation with the Christians should be killed." Fr. Bohm confirmed that new Muslim jihad warriors arrive in Maluku "every day" on ferries from Java.

Nevertheless, Maluku remains a small theater of conflict in a huge country.

"It's only 5,000 dead in a chain of islands whose population numbers 2 million. It's war on Java -- with over 100 million -- that we are really worried about," said a government aide.

Yet the central government is still expected to reduce the conflict. Local Christian leaders are worried that the situation on Ambon will get worse as a result of the leadership struggle in the capital.

"The next leader will probably be Megawati, and we all remember that Wahid tasked her to sort out Ambon over a year ago and her response was to go shopping in Hong Kong," said one pastor. When she did finally visit, she left to an escalation of the conflict.

Many of Indonesia's Christians are disappointed to see the premature end of Wahid's presidency. "It's more his erratic style of leadership that has let him down, rather than his policies, and certainly he has protected religious rights well," said a prominent Surabaya pastor.

Damien Kingsbury, writing in "The Age," confirms the pastor's assessment of Wahid: "He has tried to reform the army and judiciary, and moved against some corrupt individuals. It is these latter features that have counted against him most."

Wahid was initially accused on corruption charges, but a prosecution report cleared him of wrongdoing. Regardless, impeachment proceedings have continued.

"A Javanese king is about to be replaced by a Javanese queen," said a well-placed source in Jakarta. "Wahid could not stop being what he always was -- a king rather than a president, and ran a court rather than a government. His public slightings of Megawati have come back to haunt him, even though she deserved his rebukes for her failure to build alliances and do anything constructive politically."

This source, a Christian, believes that Indonesia will face greater instability if Wahid is removed, although he adds, "Megawati is not the key figure. It is her advisers that matter, for she is utterly dependent upon them. Her party is also not going to pander to extremist Muslims, so religious freedom is safe for now, but the dangerous thing is that the extremist Muslims have successfully flexed their political muscles to push Wahid out, and they might manage a repeat of this in the future, and continue to create instability, which they can feed off to pursue their Islamicist agenda."

Copyright © 2001 Compass Direct News Service. Used with permission.

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Worthy Christian News » Christian Persecution » Religious Liberty Deteriorates During Wahid's Impeachment Crisis