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Eyes on the prize, rulers ignore war

Muslim rioting in Java crushes Christians and burns churches; instability spawns more fear

Just as Oslo's Nobel Committee was awarding Indonesians Jose Ramos-Horta and Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo its distinguished Peace Prize, Indonesia's main island saw bloody rioting in the worst of a series of attacks directed at Christians. The violence left five Pentecostals dead and more than 20 churches in ashes.

Mr. Ramos-Horta, a professor, and Mr. Belo, a Catholic bishop, were awarded the prize for their efforts to mediate a 21-year-old civil war on the island of Timor. In that conflict the Catholic majority in the province of East Timor has challenged the government's predominantly Muslim military for control ever since the province was given up by the Portugese in 1975. But on Java, Indonesia's most populous island, the tables are turned. Muslims outnumber Christians 24 to 1. That minority is facing the political heat along Java's stretch of the equator as militant Muslims agitate for a greater voice in government.

In East Java Pentecostal pastor Ishak Christian, along with his wife, his daughter, his niece, and a church worker were burned to death in the town of Situbondo. They were the victims of an Oct. 10 riot led by 3,000 Muslims that swelled to 10,000 people and spread to seven cities.

What jump-started the rioting was the blasphemy trial of a Muslim sect leader named Saleh (many Indonesians use only one name). He was accused of teaching that the prophet Mohammed was not God's messenger to all mankind. A Situbondo judge sentenced Saleh to five years in prison, infuriating thousands of Muslims who had gathered outside the courthouse seeking the death penalty in his case. After setting fire to the courthouse, the crowd set off on a burning spree, beginning with nearby Gethsemani Protestant Church and moving to other Christian sites in East Java. Within five hours, 21 churches, five Christian schools, an orphanage, and a monastery were destroyed. A Buddhist temple was also torched, along with several businesses and cars. The mob, commandeering trucks and motorcycles, was stopped before reaching Banyuwangi on the eastern coast of Java. Police made only 120 arrests, and only 40 members of the mob remain in custody.

The October attacks brought to more than 50 the number of churches burned on Java in 1996. In September, Muslim extremists destroyed a Catholic church in Jakarta, the nation's capital. In June, a mob burned 10 churches and seriously injured a pastor in Surabaya, the capital of East Java. Authorities have yet to bring charges against the rioters in Surabaya, which is 60 miles west of Situbondo.

Overlaid on a map of North America, the archipelago of Indonesia would stretch from Seattle to Bermuda. Invoked better in Western minds by its colonial name, the Spice Islands, Indonesia is often pictured more in terms of a Jules Verne saga than as Asia's "third giant." Behind China and India in total population, Indonesia has more Muslims than any country in the world. Eighty-five percent of the country's 200 million people claim to be Muslim, while roughly 10 percent are Christian and the rest are animists, Hindus, or Buddhists.

Although dominated by its Muslim majority, Indonesia is a secular state and does not strictly apply the Muslim religious law known as sharia. Some speculate that these riots may be an attempt to change that. Ethnic and religious groups are increasingly on edge as next year's elections approach. The 74-year-old President Suharto, who has ruled Indonesia for 32 years, is credited with eliminating Marxist threats to the country's democratic institutions. He is seen, however, particularly by Muslim extremists with an appeal to the poor, as allowing Indonesia's increasing wealth to remain in the hands of a few. For that reason, the scandal involving billionaire Indonesian John Riady and his illegal contribution to Bill Clinton's presidential campaign adds to the tension. It fuels the resentment of powers that be.

Both Muslim and Christian observers worry as much over the rioting's organization as its fierceness. They say it was a far from spontaneous uprising, even though they aren't sure who is ultimately responsible. Amien Rais, head of the reputedly 28 million-strong Muhammidiyah Islamic group, said, "The way it happened was so systematic, so organized--it was inspired and directed by a certain group of people."

Two leading Muslim groups made public apologies for the attacks and asked for the country's forgiveness. One of the groups, Nahdlatul Ulama, acknowledged that most of the violence had been perpetrated by its own members. "I bow my head and ask for forgiveness for the loss inflicted on the government and the public," said NU chairman Abdurrahman Wahid.

Hasan Basri, chairman of another Islamic group, the Indonesian Council of Ulemas, said the attacks were meant to divide the country. "Prophet Muhammad forbade Muslims from committing violence, killing monks, women, and children, or burning houses of worship, even during wars," he said.

Situbondo authorities offered the use of a government building to Protestant and Catholic congregations whose churches were burned. Although the acknowledgment of wrongdoing was unprecedented, it does not put Christians on East Java at ease. For now, they say they will continue to sleep in their clothes. "The Christians in Situbondo are living in fear," said Herman Josef Pandoyo Putra O Carn, Catholic bishop of the region.

They know the furor of the Muslim crowd as well as the reticence of the secular state. Given events in nearby Surabayo, Christians in Situbondo wonder whether the authorities are capable or even willing to see justice done. East Java Governor Basofi Sudman furthered that skepticism when he advised residents soon after the rioting, "Let us agree to hush up the problem."

The government, too, has much to fear. Indonesia's Nobel laureates have brought unwanted world attention to its internal turmoil. The Riady episode points to the gulf between rich and poor--and particularly the lack of a stabilizing middle class. With an elderly president and elections in the balance, Muslim extremists are finding it easy to destabilize Asia's third giant.

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @mcbelz.