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A Jihad Elsewhere

The Wall Street Journal, May 3, 2002


A Jihad Elsewhere

By DOUG BANDOW, senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

Ambon, Indonesia - For violent religious conflict -- especially between Muslims and non-Muslims -- the world's attention is directed at the Mideast and the threats emanating from al Qaeda.

But this archipelago nation has its own share of bloody discord, and like other countries facing such trouble it is attempting its version of a peace process, with mixed results so far.

Last week 14 Christians were burned and stabbed to death near this provincial capital, part of Indonesia's Moluccas Islands. The attackers wore black masks, but there is little doubt they are affiliated with the Laskar Jihad, which rejected a recent peace accord.

To be sure, peace is desperately needed here. A large, makeshift cross in Ambon marks the spot where a church once stood. The vacant lot is now part of no man's land separating the Christian and Muslim parts of town. Nearby lie several blocks of ruined buildings filled with the debris of war.

Conflict has taken place sporadically over the past three years. But religious tensions date back to colonial times, when the Dutch favored the then-majority Christians. Muslims long resented their own relative poverty, Christians the influx of Muslim immigrants.

In January 1999 a dispute between a Christian bus driver and a Muslim passenger spiraled out of control, triggering violence. In just two years as many as 10,000 people died, and 700,000 fled. Some 400,000 remain in refugee camps. Although both sides have suffered, Christians, who are only 10% of Indonesia's population, have borne the greater weight of persecution and suffering.

Robert Lesnussa, a Bible teacher in Jakarta, says that successful missionary efforts by Christians have fueled the anxiety and anger of Muslims. "They feel Christians are threatening their religion." In late 1999, a Muslim mob descended on the seminary where Mr. Lesnussa once taught. Only rubble remains.

Far worse is the situation in the Moluccas, where some 6,000 fighters of the Laskar Jihad, or Holy Warrior Troops, have flocked to combat the islands' Christians. Hundreds of churches have been destroyed. Human casualties include not only the dead and wounded but, in another sense, the Christians who have been forced to convert to Islam, the price of being allowed to stay in their villages.

The peace agreement seemed to hold out hope. It was the work of 70 Christian and Muslim delegates who in February called for an investigation of the start of the religious conflict, respect for religious freedom, disarmament of communal forces and the return of refugees. Not long after the pact was signed, C.J. Boehm, a Dutch missionary at the Catholic Crisis Centre here, told me that it had been "received fairly well."

But the big question mark was always the Laskar Jihad. Nearly two years ago I met Christian leaders ranging from pastors to retired generals who all agreed that these fighters must be removed from the Moluccas. Most Christians still view the Laskar Jihad as the main barrier to peace. It "clearly wants to make Indonesia into a Muslim state," Mr. Boehm says.

And indeed, the Laskar Jihad denounced the peace accord, calling the Muslim delegates "good for nothing" and "trash." Two days before the latest killings, Jafar Umar Thalib, a commander for the Laskar Jihad, told a Muslim crowd: "From today, we will no longer talk about reconciliation." Yet Thamrin Ely, head of the Muslim delegation, opposed removing the Laskar Jihad's members from the islands. And last year Haddi Abdullah Soulisa, the leader of Ambon's Muslim community, supported them: They "come to help Muslims," he said, and "not only for war."

The main hope for peace is war weariness. Also critical is the commitment of the provincial government, backed by Jakarta, to preserve the peace. During the fighting, Christians called on the military to stop siding with the Muslims. One Christian leader told me that such a move would require "intervention from outside," principally the U.S. But Mr. Soulisa rejects that course: "The U.S. shouldn't police the world. Give us time for Indonesia to make it by ourselves."

Now is the time. Last year, Agus Wattimena, the head of a Christian militia fighting the Laskar Jihad, told me: "Go back to America and tell Christians that they must help us here." He was killed shortly afterward.

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