Religious leaders call for calm in Sulawesi

Weekend blasts meant to ignite war between Muslims, Christians, they say.

Religious leaders in Indonesia moved quickly yesterday to defuse a ticking time bomb in Central Sulawesi, amid concerns that Saturday’s blasts could lead to further violence.

Given the recent history of bloody clashes between Christians and Muslims there, they called for calm after two explosions killed 20 people in the town of Tentena.

Leaders from both groups charged that ‘external forces’ – ranging from opponents of the current regime to Muslim extremists – were trying to ignite a religious war.

Mr Syafii Maarif, chairman of the 30-million-strong Muhammadiyah, the second largest Muslim organisation in Indonesia, told The Straits Times: ‘I strongly condemn this act of violence.

‘I would urge all Christians and Muslims not to fall into the trap the perpetrators have set.’

‘They want both sides to fight each other and see more blood spilled.’

Mr Natan Setiabudi, the former head of the national council of churches, noted that this was the first time that a predominantly Christian town had been targeted in Central Sulawesi.

‘If you look at previous incidents, this was never the case.’

‘From all my years of studying this issue, I don’t see any local factors at play here,’ he said.

‘It is a deliberate act by elements intent on stirring up problems.’

Mr Natan revealed that he had telephoned several church leaders in Tentena hours after the morning blasts.

‘I told them that it is important that we ask people not to engage in any retaliatory attacks,’ he said.

‘We must remain calm. Otherwise, matters could spiral out of control.’

Between 2000 and 2003, more than 1,000 people died as a result of the communal and religious clashes which took place in Central Sulawesi.

These have since subsided, but bombings and isolated attacks have become more frequent.

In May last year, for example, a Christian prosecutor who handled terrorism cases was assassinated in the town of Palu.

Two months later, gunmen killed a woman priest and injured four others when they fired into a church.

Security forces yesterday stepped up their visibility following the two explosions, which occurred minutes after each other, in a crowded market in the centre of Tentena.

AFP reported that dozens of armed policemen guarded a string of 41 churches across the district as they held masses yesterday.

Despite fears that the attack could reignite old tensions, Tentena and neighbouring towns appeared calm.

In Tentena’s only hospital, nuns led special prayers and sang hymns in wards crowded with the wounded, who included several Muslims.

About 3,000 troops were on duty in the troubled Poso region – but in the central market there, Christians and Muslims mingled, apparently unfazed by Saturday’s blasts.

It was the worst terrorist attack in Indonesia since the Bali bombings in 2002 killed 202 people and injured more than 300.

Police yesterday searched through the debris of the blast site in Sulawesi.

Senior police investigators believe that the Jemaah Islamiah terrorist network and its top bomb maker, Azahari Bin Husin, were responsible for the bombing.

Some observers, however, blamed it on the resurgence of sectarian hatred that is simmering in parts of the archipelago.

In Jakarta, senior officials held an emergency meeting, agreeing to step up counter-terrorist intelligence.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who is on a state visit to Vietnam, said that he had ordered police to arrest those responsible for the attack.

‘I don’t want to be too hasty in saying who did this, but what is clear is that I have instructed all the relevant parties to arrest the perpetrators,’ he said.

‘Just wait and see – if this problem cannot be dealt with, I will return to the country.’

A DEADLY TRAP

‘I would urge all Christians and Muslims not to fall into the trap the perpetrators have set … They want both sides to fight each other and see more blood spilled.’
– MR SYAFII MAARIF, chairman of the 30-million-strong Muhammadiyah, the second largest Muslim organisation in Indonesia

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