Fri, Dec 24, 2004 - Page 4 News List

Indonesians fear attacks

CHRISTMAS SCARE Indonesian authorities are preparing for the worst, fearing growing hostility will lead to another spate of attacks


Fears of attacks by Islamic militants are forcing some Christians in Indonesia to abandon traditional churches in favor of more discreet and secure venues this Christmas.

With foreign governments warning of holiday terror bombings, thousands of churches in major Indonesian cities will hold services this year in office buildings, hotels and even movie theaters, church leaders say.

"It puts us at a lower risk for being a target for religious persecution," said Pastor Steve Lunn, originally from Seattle, Washington, whose International English Service holds worship for 1,000 people in a downtown Jakarta office building.

"People tell me they feel safer," he said. "The facility itself is not the most important thing. It's just a place to gather. The most important thing is being together and worshipping God together."

Indonesia, a sprawling archipelago of more than 13,000 islands and 210 million people, is the world's most populous Muslim nation. The vast majority of Muslims practice a moderate version of the faith.

But attacks against Christians, who are just 8 percent of the population, have become more frequent since ex-dictator Suharto's downfall in 1998, and amid a global rise in Islamic radicalism. Suharto enforced secularism as part of national security policies.

Four years ago, suspected militants from the al-Qaida-linked Jemaah Islamiyah terror group bombed 11 churches on Christmas Eve, killing 19 people.

The group was also blamed for the 2002 nightclub bombings that killed 202 people on the resort island of Bali, a 2003 attack on the JW Marriott hotel in Jakarta and a blast at the Australian Embassy in September.

This year, more than 140,000 police will be deployed at churches, shopping malls and hotels where Westerners gather during the Christmas period, a police spokesman said.

"People are still afraid," said Pastor Hengki Ompi, whose church was attacked earlier this month by suspected Muslim gunmen on the central Indonesian island of Sulawesi. "We hope the attacks stop so we can celebrate Christmas without fear."

Plans to build new churches are sometimes met with violent protests from Islamic groups, which view them as an attempt to convert Muslims. Church leaders also say a decree requiring religious leaders to get neighborhood approval before building new places of worship is being used to discriminate against them.

Some church leaders say these obstacles are understandable given the country's Muslim majority, and acknowledge Muslims face similar problems in the few pockets of Indonesia where Christians dominate. But others say the restrictions reflect a growing intolerance of religious minorities.

"We have a lot more liberties than say Afghanistan and Pakistan, but the fact is that Christians are second-class citizens," said Pastor Bill Heckman, a Dutchman who has tried for six years to build a church in Jakarta.

Sporadic fighting between the Muslims and Christians in central and eastern Indonesia has reportedly killed more than 10,000 people since 1999.

Muslims say evangelical Christians are partly to blame for rising religious tensions. They say hundreds of foreign-funded evangelical groups are using churches in Muslim-dominated neighborhoods to convert locals -- a claim some Christians acknowledge is true.

In response, the government has proposed a law barring Indonesians from attending religious ceremonies that do not reflect their faith -- making it much harder for them to switch. It would also criminalize interfaith marriages and adoptions. Christians are lobbying the government to scrap the 35-year-old decree that can restrict churches from being built.

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