Thousands of Islamic militants with apparent ties to Osama bin Laden are terrorizing Christians in central Indonesia, according to religious advocacy groups.
More than 50,000 Christians in the Central Sulawesi province town of Tentena are in imminent danger of attack by a paramilitary group called Laskar Jihad.
The jihad fighters’ intention? To completely eliminate Christians from the region, said Steven Snyder, who took a survey trip to the area in late November. Snyder is president of Washington, D.C.-based International Christian Concern.
About 15,000 Laskar Jihad troops equipped with AK-47 assault rifles, rocket launchers and bulldozers are in the region, said Snyder. “If they all gather to attack, there is going to be a bloodbath.”
At least 600 homes and six churches were burned during the Nov. 26-29 attacks, according to local sources reporting to the Voice of the Martyrs, an Oklahoma-based group that monitors persecution against Christians. The largest church in the coastal town of Poso, north of Tentena, was bombed and burned during the onslaught, and 15,000 Christians reportedly fled the area, VOM said. About 28,000 of the Christians under threat in Tentena are refugees who fled their homes in Poso, according to ICC’s Snyder.
Laskar Jihad’s leader, Ja’far Umar Thalib, wants to make Indonesia an Islamic state. In pursuance of that utopian goal, the movement waged a violent campaign against Christians in neighboring Maluku province, where at least 9,000 people have been killed since 1999.
Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world, with more than 180 million. A minority supports the radical Islamic parties that share the aim of converting the nation into an Islamic state, analysts say.
Laskar Jihad openly collects money on street corners in Indonesia for “jihad,” the Compass Direct news service reported. Eyewitnesses say the group is collecting funds on the island of Java, the country’s most populous, claiming – ironically – that Christians are raping Muslim women in Poso and have declared holy war on all Muslims.
Although Laskar Jihad’s website insists attacks on Muslims are being organized by Christian priests, Sulawesi’s Roman Catholic Bishop Josef Suwatan dismisses the claims as propaganda, say news reports. Some Christians, lacking protection from authorities, have organized militia to defend themselves, said Snyder, but they often are armed only with homemade rifles and bows and arrows.
The Indonesian government has promised to send fresh military troops to the Poso region.
Last Wednesday, top security officials from the Indonesian capital Jakarta toured the area to assess whether martial law should be declared. During the visit, police spokesman Lt. Col. Agus Sugianto denied that Laskar Jihad is behind renewed violence in the area. In the past two years, about 1,000 people have died during fighting between Muslim and Christian villagers on Sulawesi island.
‘Bloody December’ predicted
Indonesian citizens officially must declare identity with a recognized religion, Snyder pointed out, and many are only culturally affiliated. But “Christian belief,” both Protestant and Roman Catholic, “runs deep within many of these communities and villages,” he said. Dutch Reformed Church missionaries first came to the area more than 100 years ago.
Laskar Jihad leaders publicly have declared that this month would be a “bloody December” for the Christians in the Poso area. Snyder said the group has declared its intention to celebrate the Islamic festival of Eid al Fit – due to fall about Dec. 15 – in Tentena, “raising fears that the final assault on the town could come in the next few days.” Eid al Fitr marks the end of Islam’s holy month of Ramadan.
“(Laskar) Jihad have said they plan to terminate the Christian community one way or another by forcing them out or killing them,” Snyder said.
Pastor Theopilus Kuhambo described to Snyder a Jihad attack from Nov. 15 on his village of Patangolemba:
The guards of our village were conducting their routine check of the village perimeter when they noticed a band of heavily armed men dressed in black moving toward our village. The guards gave the predetermined alarm, striking metal rods on the metal power poles. Fortunately, the people of the village heard the alarm, giving us all time to gather together at the church. With our four children, ages 7, 9, 11 and 15, we gathered with many of the people from our village in our church.
The Jihad entered the village in a wedge formation, with bearded men in the center carrying bombs, cans of gasoline, and torches. The Jihad who marched in file along the outer edges were carrying automatic weapons. The guards estimated that there were about 300 Jihad terrorists, but there were likely more who couldn’t be seen because they were in the shadows. As the Jihad advanced they looted the homes, a church, and several businesses. Afterward they set all the buildings ablaze.
… A total of 250 homes and one church were destroyed. Only the 30 homes and two churches that were on the other side of the military post escaped destruction, but the Jihad will likely return to finish their work of destruction.
Bin Laden, ‘our Leader’
Evidence of allegiance to Osama bin Laden by Lasker Jihad members was evident as Snyder traveled through the war zone by military escort. “Each Jihad post had posters of Bin Laden, some with writing underneath his picture saying This is our Leader,” he said.
International Christian Concern obtained a letter written by an Indonesian army Major Batara that instructed a junior officer regarding six foreigners – including two Afghans and two Pakistanis – who were involved in an attack in early November on the Christian village of Pendolo. But Batara, who has authority over Pendolo, received orders from his superior to release the foreigners without interrogating them. Snyder said the foreigners are believed still to be in the Poso area.
The BBC quoted a police source who said Afghans and other foreigners are engaged in battle alongside the Muslim fighters.
Authorities and military police in the area believe bin Laden’s al-Qaida network funds and helps equip Laskar Jihad, according to Snyder, who said, however, he could not come up with conclusive evidence. “The evidence is very elusive – which is the way the network operates – so we could not nail it down.”
While there is no hard evidence of a bin Laden connection to Laskar Jihad, there are many indications, said Paul Marshall, a leading authority on religious persecution. “U.S. intelligence sources think there is a connection,” said Marshall, a senior fellow at the Center for Religious Freedom at Freedom House in Washington, D.C. and author of “Their Blood Cries Out.”
About two weeks ago, Marshall noted, police in Spain arrested a member of the al-Qaida network who had been sending fighters to Indonesia. Also, during the height of the Maluku conflict, Afghan nationals reportedly arrived in the provincial capital Ambon to warm greetings by police, Marshall said. Agence France-Presse reported in September that a bin Laden envoy had made several trips to Indonesia, although he denied that bin Laden is funding him.
The U.S. State Department has not publicly established a formal link between Laskar Jihad and bin Laden, a department official told WorldNetDaily, but added that Laskar Jihad “has been fomenting religious violence for more than a year in various parts of Indonesia, and we are very much concerned about that.”
It’s hard to establish an ongoing connection between bin Laden and Laskar Jihad, said Richard Baker, an Indonesia specialist with the East-West Center, an education and research group in Honolulu, Hawaii, established by the U.S. Congress. “The story of a bin Laden-Laskar Jihad connection goes back to training of Indonesians, including some who became Laskar Jihad at training camps in Afghanistan,” said Baker, a former U.S. foreign service officer in Indonesia. “However, the head of Laskar Jihad has been quite acerbic about bin Laden, calling him not a true Islamist.”
‘Running in parallel’
Radical groups that share al-Qaida’s ideology, but have their own agendas and enemies, are “running in parallel” to each other, Baker said. “At a certain point you have to ask yourself if it matters whether they are card-carrying members of al-Qaida or freelance operators. You are dead either way if you get in their sights.”
Christians in the area are convinced that foreigners are aiding their attackers, said a pastor in Poso, quoted by Compass Direct: “We’re all pretty sure this recent escalation of violence is due to the arrival of international terrorists from Afghanistan and Pakistan, teaching the local fighters to make bombs and weapons, and bringing money to buy more sophisticated arms, but the government is just standing by watching all this instead of intercepting it.”
In a November attack on the village of Pantangolemba, reported Snyder, “several of the military ran away and hid.” Also, weapons, ammunition and bomb factories in Palu and Makassar run by Laskar Jihad have been left undisturbed by the authorities, he noted.
In an urgent Dec. 1 e-mail alert, a Christian missionary in Indonesia, Jeff Hammond, cited fleeing villagers claiming military units have joined in the attacks. “Villagers who fled to the military barracks in Kawua are being turned away by the military even as I type this e-mail,” Hammond wrote from Jakarata.
Why doesn’t the government rein in Muslim militants? Indonesia’s President Megawati Sukarnoputri, like her predecessor Abdurrahman Wahid, has been reluctant to do so due to pressure from fundamentalist Islamic parties, said Marshall. But while Wahid apparently struck a deal with the Muslim parties to remain in power, in July those same parties helped Megawati oust Wahid.
The government of Indonesia could stop Laskar Jihad “if it had the will to do so,” a military officer in the Poso region told Snyder. “We have the arms, we have the forces, we could do it, I have no doubt about it,” said the officer, according to Snyder. But the problem is there are those even within the government itself who are profiting from this whole Jihad movement through the dealing of arms and bribery. It goes all the way to the top.”
Tensions in Central Sulawesi between Christians and Muslims have similarities to other hot spots in eastern Indonesia, according to Marshall. For decades, parts of Sulawesi, along with the Malukus, East Timor and Irian Jaya have had a Christian majority that generally has lived at peace with its Muslim neighbors. But under the Suharto regime, from 1996 to 1998, the government began a policy of transmigration, relocating Muslims to these areas to relieve overcrowding on the islands of Java and Madura.
While this program had economic purposes, Marshall noted, many believe there was a political motivation: to head off separatism. Tension increased in the 1990s as resentment among the locals grew. Newcomers appeared to be garnering the best jobs, and Christians began fearing the influx of Muslims would make them a minority.
Those tensions have led to communal violence between Christians and Muslims in the Malukus and Central Sulawesi, Marshall said. He believes those problems are solvable by the respective communities, but the presence of Laskar Jihad makes reconciliation impossible. “They don’t want reconciliation,” he said. “They deliberately busted up attempts.”
Marshall said the international media generally have not made a distinction between communal violence and the current jihad attacks. “When I see newspaper accounts about ‘religious clashes’ – that is not a term I would use now. One year ago, yes; but not now.”
Laskar Jihad is “engaged in a policy of religious cleansing,” Marshall asserted.
Snyder believes international pressure is required to stop the bloodshed.
“Personally, I believe that the United States has been so concerned about holding together the coalition against terrorism that they are afraid to hold leaders in these countries accountable,” he said.
“I am convinced that if the Christians in the United States would say, ‘These are our Christian brothers and sisters that are being annihilated, and we want our U.S. government to do something now,’ we could make a big difference,” Snyder said. “But why have we been so silent?”
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