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Leaders ask restraint after riots

American Reporter - December 1, 1998

Andreas Harsono, Jakarta – Indonesian Muslim and Christian leaders asked the public Tuesday to refrain from seeking reprisal against one another over attacks on more than 20 churches in Jakarta last month and the burning of several mosques in a predominantly Christian area on Monday.

Abdurrahman Wahid, the chairman of the 30-million strong Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia's largest Muslim group, said late Monday that unnamed parties are exploiting religious sensitivities to stir up unrest in Indonesia but declined to name the suspects.

"I don't think the people were from the town," Wahid said, referring to fresh unrest which broke out in Kupang on the island of Timor on Monday in which thousands of Christian protesters burned down three mosques, an Islamic school and other Muslim-owned buildings.

The Christian protesters initially staged a rally in that provincial capital "to mourn" the attack on around 20 churches in Jakarta two weeks earlier. But the rally turned violent and a wild mob targeted the Nurus-Saadah mosque, the biggest mosque in Kupang, before burning the smaller Al-Taqwa and Al-Fattah mosques.

Indonesian media reported that the arson was obviously in retaliation for the burning of churches in the Ketapang area in Jakarta on Nov. 22, when three churches and one Catholic school were burned down and 20 other Protestant and Catholic churches were vandalized.

Frans Seda, a former finance minister and a respected Catholic figure who comes from the Timor area, also condemned the burning, saying that burning any house of worship cannot be justified, "The action is totally a blunder and does not show the civilized manner of the Indonesian people," he said.

Seda also said that the church burning in Jakarta should be understood "proportionately" and "one should not emotionally blame others [Muslims]." He asked the police to arrest the arsonists.

Almost 90 percent of Indonesia's 210 million population are Muslims. The Christians live mostly in the eastern part of Indonesia, which include the island of Timor. The eastern part of the island is the internationally-disputed East Timor, whose population is mostly Catholic.

Many observers and foreign diplomats feared that the ongoing economic crisis – in which 20 million people have lost their jobs and nearly 50 million are encountering difficulty in getting sufficient food – are going to increase tensions between various ethnic and religious groups in this world's fourth most populous country.

A Muslim leader once said that Indonesia may become Asia's Bosnia-Herzegovina if its leaders do not quickly solve the economic and political crisis hitting the country. Thosuands have doied and tens of thousands displaced by ethnic and religious violence in the former Yugoslavia.

Christian organizations said that more than 500 churches have been attacked and burned down over the last three years. But Monday's attack is very likely to increase tension between Muslims and Christians.

Hartono Mardjono, the deputy chairman of the Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah Indonesia, a right-wing Muslim group, also deplored the burning and blamed "certain parties" who want to pit the Muslims against the Christians.

"They want to provoke the Muslims and the Christians with the intention to divide various religious groups here," Hartono said, calling on Muslims to restrain themselves and asking Muslim preachers to help cool down the heated confrontation between the two faiths.

According to the Kupang-based "Kupang Pos" daily, a coalition of four Christian youth groups organized Monday's rally, which includes the Movement of Indonesian Christian Students (GMKI), the Association of the Catholic Students of Republic Indonesia (PMKRI), the Catholic Youths and the Movement of Indonesian Young Christians (GAMKI). Meanwhile, Jakarta bishop Julius Cardinal Darmaatmadja SJ and Kupang bishop Petrus Turang Pr. asked Indonesian Catholics to help rebuild the burned mosques. "I will organize fund raising to reconstruct those houses of worship," said Darmaatmadja.

Governor Piet A. Tallo, whose administration also covers Kupang, also said Monday that the government will help Muslims rebuild the burned mosques, adding that he found it difficult to prevent the riots due to the large number of the protesters.