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Panel examining Indonesian persecution hears Christian prof, Muslim leader

WASHINGTON (BP)–Sharply different perspectives on religious persecution in Indonesia have been laid before the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

After witnesses testified Feb. 13 in Washington about conditions in the country, experts recommended possible actions the United States could take to end religious persecution there.

A Christian professor and a Muslim leader from Indonesia shared their opinions as to the cause and severity of the conflict in the Maluku Islands of Indonesia. Fighting between Muslims and Christians erupted in the Malukus in January 1999. More than 4,000 people have been killed and as many as 500,000 people displaced since then.

A weak government that is Islamic-friendly, influence from outside jihad warriors and ideological clashes among Muslims and Christians have flamed the current religious fighting, said John Titaley, a professor at Satya Wacana Christian University in Salatiga, Indonesia.

“The emergence of religious feelings which have encouraged the slaughtering of pastors and the burning down of church buildings … are seen as systematic attempts to eliminate historical records of Christianity in Maluku and Ambon in particular,” Titaley said.

Showing photographs of victims he has interviewed, Titaley told the commissioners about forced conversions to Islam and forced circumcisions of Christian men and women. He also testified that many Christians still are being held hostage in mosques.

However, H.M. Jusuf Ely, chairman of the Jaziratul Muluk Muslim organization in Ambon, Indonesia, insisted the conflict is not a religious war.

“The conflict is involving Muslim and Christian Protestant only, but not with Christian Catholic,” he said. “The conflict is not a religious conflict. The provocateurs use the religion issues and local value issues to blow up the conflict.”

The commission’s chairman, Elliott Abrams, asked witnesses their opinions about what the government of Indonesia should be doing to stop the conflict.

Some witnesses said they wanted the government to pressure Indonesia’s military to actually keep the peace, while other panelists said the government is too weak to control the military.

Ely made a plea to nongovernmental organizations.

“Please don’t support my people with food every month because my people become lazy and they only want to get help and not work,” he said. “Please, help my people with the equipment, with the materials, then they can do their jobs and they can find money. When we get them jobs they will forget about what happened before.”

Abrams also asked the witnesses if they knew about fighters, money or weapons pouring into the conflict from outside Indonesia.

“Me, I am a leader in the Muslim community and I am a commander of task squads that joined the first episodes of the Malukus conflict,” Ely said. “We never got money or funds from outside of the country.”

But Titaley said friends who are fighting on the field have reported seeing non-Indonesians fighting with the Muslim jihad paramilitary fighters. In addition, many people from outside Indonesia are flooding airports as they arrive to join the conflict.

One panelist suggested funding for the conflict is coming from the Middle East.

“There are reports in Muslim communities that there has been a significant inflow of financial support from the Middle East, in particular from non-government segments of Saudi Arabia,” said Robert Hefner, a professor of anthropology at Boston University. “This has raised the question of whether [terrorist financier] Osama bin Laden is implicated.”

Hefner advised against assigning significant responsibility for the fighting to bin Laden, other than acknowledging evidence that bin Laden has helped transfer funds and armaments to segments of the nationally organized Laskar jihad.

A panel of four experts on the Indonesian situation recommended several steps the United States could take to resolve the conflict. Most of the panelists agreed against sending peacekeeping troops and advocated using nongovernmental organizations that did not have religious ties.

“I think [the conflict] is so polarized now that in fact [religious entities] would almost certainly exacerbate things,” said Sidney Jones of Human Rights Watch. “It might work if it were an Indonesian organization that was faith-based. But outside organizations, no.”

But some Christian workers disagreed with her assessment.

“It’s just proof positive that sometimes others do not fully understand the strength of faith-based groups and initiatives and the power of God,” said Jim Brown, the human needs consultant for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.

Jones also criticized the clamor raised over the forced conversions to Islam, claiming Christians have been guilty as well.

“On the issue of forced conversions, it is important to note that while these are hideous atrocities taking place there were also forced conversions to Christianity that took place particularly in north Malukus in December 1999,” she said. “I think we should keep that in mind.”

Brown, who said he doubts whether there truly were forced conversions to Christianity, said history is not an excuse for present violence.

“Yes, there have been scattered instances over history,” he said, “but that still doesn’t justify what is happening now.”

The commissioners are scheduled to release their recommendations in May.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: MOCK COFFIN.
— Search for prayer requests from Indonesia: www.imb.org/CompassionNet/countries.asp.
— Photos from Ambon: www.imb.org/Media/PhotoDownloads/ambonreport.htm.
— United States Commission on International Religious Freedom: www.uscirf.org.
— Previous news from Ambon: www.imb.org/learn/news/story.asp?id=610; www.imb.org/learn/news/story.asp?id=611.
— Ambon map and country information: www.imb.org/tconline/200012/ambonmap.htm

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  • Brittany Jarvis