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Beirut all over again

The rise of jihad armies and Christian retaliation threaten island paradise in Indonesia

When Indonesian Muslims slaughtered a goat and smeared its blood on a wooden cross early this month, they were demanding a holy war against minority Christians in Indonesia's legendary Spice Islands. A week later the call for jihad escalated again, as prominent scholars and clerics of the Indonesian Council of Ulamas announced that they would support such a holy war.

The conflict in Maluku (also called the Moluccas), a string of islands in the eastern half of Indonesia known historically to European traders for its spices, is spiraling seemingly out of control. Between 1,000 and 3,000 people died in Muslim-Christian clashes during December and early January.

Violence in Ambon has been the worst, with several congregations coming under attack by Muslim mobs after Christmas. Silo Church, Ambon's largest Protestant church, was destroyed by fire, and a subsequent attack on the congregation killed 40, according to a report filed by Australian clergyman John Barr. Bethlehem Church, a predominantly Chinese Christian congregation, also came under attack. Throughout Maluku, more than 50 churches have been destroyed. Mr. Barr said that "thousands of Christians have either fled Ambon or are preparing to flee into the jungle for protection." On Seram, a larger island north of Ambon, 21 were killed in two days of fighting.

Animosity between Christians, who often come from indigenous minorities or immigrant groups like the Chinese, and Muslims, who are the overwhelming majority of the population, has been rising over three years. To many, the Christian minority is associated with the privileged and corrupt class symbolized by President Suharto, who ruled Indonesia as a virtual dictator for more than 30 years. Economic decline and political instability followed his turnout from office in 1998; some Muslims blame Christians for that. Factor in fights for independence in East Timor, and lesser campaigns for freedom in Irian Jaya, and Aceh-rebels there killed 26 this month-and the island paradise so appealing to Dutch colonists is increasingly a paradise lost.

What is new and disturbing about present conflicts, say Indonesian pastors, is that the fighting is spreading to disparate parts of the Indonesian archipelago and appears more orchestrated than before. Christians fear that fighting will spread further and may spark atrocities against Christians on the most populous island, Java, where small Christian minorities are usually surrounded by Muslim majorities. They say that military forces, as in East Timor, have taken sides against Christians.

On Java, calls for "Jihad! Jihad!" reached to the capital, Jakarta. Over 5,000 protesters marched from a central mosque to the University of Indonesia campus Jan. 6, shouting the Muslim call for holy war. Demands for holy war grew louder the following week, with as many as 80,000 Muslims demonstrating outside parliament.

In Halmahera, religious clashes were just beginning when WORLD spoke with pastor Augustimus Ais. He said more than 20 Protestant churches had been burned on the island, which lies along the western border of Maluku. Halmahera has no recent history of these incidents, as do Ambon and other areas. A "jihad army," according to Mr. Ais, was imported to intimidate the island's mostly Christian population and took up posts along the western coast. Muslim fighters terrorized small villages, forcing businesses to close and church members to flee to jungle hideouts. The Associated Press reported that 12 were killed Jan. 10 and Jan. 11in Halmahera.

"We are facing very hard experiences," Mr. Ais told WORLD. "Only young people and people who can defend these areas are staying." Military officer Achmad Ali confirmed that thousands of people are fleeing the island, fearing an increase in the bloodshed. Mr. Ais acknowledged that Christians, including members of his own Reformed Church synod, had attacked Muslims, but he said they did so "to defend themselves."

"The Maluku situation is tragic and not so clear cut as that Muslims are aggressively bad and Christians innocently good," said Timothy Friberg, an author and resident in nearby Sulawesi. "I am quite convinced that if either side turned the other cheek, the violence would wind down in quick order." Two Christian observers in Maluku, who asked not to be identified because of the dangers, said in many ways the conflict, more than a case of persecution, resembled the vengeful religious warfare of Northern Ireland or Lebanon. "Islam and Christianity are thin veneers over age-old animism," one told WORLD.

In Indonesia, "conservative" and "traditional" Islam refer to moderate, even nominal, forms of the faith, unlike in Arab nations, where those tags are synonymous with radical fundamentalism. For hundreds of years, Java was ruled by an advanced Hindu and Buddhist culture. Most of Indonesia's Muslims are influenced heavily by those religions, along with Sufism. "Modernist" or reform-minded Muslims argue for the Koran as the textbook for society, reject their melting-pot roots, and campaign for an Islamic nation that is more fundamentalist and Middle Eastern. Ironically, for a number of Islamic intellectuals, the roots of resentment and reform began with Western educations. University of Chicago-educated Amien Rais, a prominent religious leader, former presidential hopeful, and head of the constitutional assembly, is a case in point.

The intellectual shift parallels a demographic one. In Maluku, Muslim migrants from other parts of Indonesia have inundated areas that have Christian majorities. Many of the newcomers to Maluku are Bugis and Buton people from Sulawesi, who favor aggressive Islamization, in contrast to the mild, traditional culture of Maluku.

President Abdurrahman Wahid, himself a Muslim cleric (see sidebar), has warned he would use force to prevent Muslim radicals from traveling to the region to take part in the fighting. He called for a naval blockade to prevent migration to the embattled islands, but Christians in Maluku have said it is in many ways ineffective. And when Mr. Wahid sent troops into Maluku this month, Christians soon pleaded for him to remove them. They said the forces were supporting Muslim insurgents.

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.