While a planned attack has been thwarted, fears remain that an Islamic militant group will carry out its vow to give Christians in central Indonesia a “bloody Christmas.”

Two weeks ago, tens of thousands of Christians in Central Sulawesi province were reported to be in imminent danger of attack by a paramilitary force called Laskar Jihad. The fighters intend to eliminate Christians from the region, according to local church leaders, but have been held off by a sudden dispatch of government troops.

Yesterday, in government-sponsored negotiations, Muslim and Christians leaders agreed to settle a three-year conflict in Central Sulawesi that has taken more than 2,000 lives. Laskar Jihad did not participate in the talks, however. Four other settlements have been broken and tensions remain high.

“Wherever Laskar Jihad has shown up, local efforts at reconciliation have been thrown out the window,” said Lawrence Goodrich, spokesman for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, an advisory group established by Congress.

Laskar Jihad has escalated the conflict in the Poso region of Central Sulawesi, Goodrich asserted. The group also has waged a violent campaign against Christians in the neighboring Maluku islands where at least 9,000 people have been killed since 1999.

Yesterday, gunmen killed nine Christians and wounded two in an assault on a water taxi in Ambon, the capital of Maluku province, the Jakarta Post reported.

The report did not identify the assailants as members of Laskar Jihad, but they likely were from the same network of terrorists, claimed Steven Snyder, who monitors persecution of Christians as president of Washington, D.C.-based International Christian Concern.

“Boats that are carrying Christians have customarily been shot at by members of Laskar Jihad throughout the Maluku islands for the past couple of years,” said Snyder, who visited Indonesia in late November.

The Poso area and the Maluku islands have had roughly equal populations of Christians and Muslims who, according to local leaders, lived in harmony before a recent influx of outsiders stirred up trouble. Indonesia’s population of 230 million is about 90 percent Muslim. Laskar Jihad leader Ja’far Umar Thalib has vowed to make the southeast Asian nation an Islamic state.

In Ambon yesterday, furious Christians marched to the provincial governor’s office in Ambon to protest official incompetence in dealing with armed attackers, the Jakarta Post said.

Rev. Broery Hendriks, head of the Maluku Protestant Church synod, led the crowd in prayer in front of the governor’s office, urging them to remain calm.

“Please do not resort to violence,” Hendriks said. “This is not the solution. Let’s continue our struggle in peace.”

The government of Indonesia has the power to curb the bloodshed, Goodrich insisted. “If it reins in Laskar Jihad, and rogue military units that may be supporting Laskar Jihad, then the killing will stop,” he said.

The deployment of thousands of government troops saved some 50,000 Christians in the town of Tentena, south of Poso, who were threatened with a massacre after weeks of attacks on villages in the area. A veteran missionary, who declined to be identified, said in a report that in his 27 years in Indonesia he had never seen “such a quick and amazing response” by the government.

Indonesia’s military has been widely accused of corruption and incompetence. Christians have accused troops of siding with Islamic extremists.

Within hours of the troops’ arrival, “the jihad had been put to flight,” the missionary said. “They scattered in several directions to get out of the area and to hide themselves and their weapons.”

But Snyder said that though the situation is vastly improved, the Christians in Tentena remain in danger, with Laskar Jihad forces about 10 miles from the area.

The November attacks destroyed some 21 villages in the region and added 22,000 refugees to the 28,000 that resulted from previous attacks. Many have returned home to begin rebuilding while others continue to hide in the jungles and mountains.

Private aid groups are struggling to provide food, supplies and shelter to thousands of Christians who are living in the forests, the missionary said. He quoted an aid worker who said all of the refugees “are in trauma because of the violence they experienced” and “still are afraid to stay in their village.”

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