Christmas Church Bombings in Indonesia Meant to Provoke War

Tuesday, January 9, 2001

Christian Leaders Say Attacks were Designed to Inflame Muslim-Christian Tensions
by Alex Buchan

LONDON (Compass) -- Indonesia's Christian and political leaders are convinced that the widespread Christmas Eve church bombings were meant to provoke all-out war between the Muslim and Christian communities in the country.

"Some shadowy groups want to make the whole of Indonesia like Ambon," said a Jakarta pastor, referring to an island in eastern Indonesia's Maluku chain that has been devastated by religious conflict.

Seventeen people were killed and hundreds were injured when cars packed with explosives were detonated outside churches at nine o'clock in the evening on December 24, when hundreds of Christians were gathering to attend Christmas Eve services. Twenty bombs went off in Jakarta alone, where five churches were targeted, including the Roman Catholic cathedral.

The attacks were nationwide and coordinated with such precision that many pointed the finger of suspicion at the military. Bombs went off outside mainly Roman Catholic churches in Jakarta, Bekasi, Bandung, and Sukabumi -- all cities in the western part of the island of Java. Bombs also exploded nearer churches in Mojokerto, east Java, in Medan and Pekanbaru on Sumatra island, and in Mataram in West Nusa Tenggara.

Those killed were mainly ordinary citizens unfortunate enough to be near the blast site, although four policemen were killed trying to defuse the bombs. According to a Jakarta-based missionary, "It could have been so much worse. Only half the bombs planted actually went off, and police seemed aware that a major incident was planned."

In Medan, eleven bomb parcels sent to pastors and churches were all intercepted and defused.

No one took responsibility for the blasts, although foreign journalists were quick to accuse the military. The BBC's Indonesia correspondent, Jonathan Head, said on December 25, "No other group is capable of mounting such a concerted campaign of terror, with such weaponry and precision, as a disgruntled military faction."

Leading Christians were quick to dampen speculation that the bombs were set off by Muslim extremists. The Indonesian Bishop's Conference issued an appeal on December 28 urging Christians not to retaliate, adding that there was a sinister method behind the terror.

"Be careful not to enter a trap ... the bomb explosions around Christmas are meant to give the impression that it is the act of Muslims, and then around Idul Fitri (end of Ramadan) the same group will detonate bombs to give the impression that Christians are retaliating," the Bishop's appeal stated.

Indonesia's embattled president, Abdurrahman Wahid, said the same at a December 29 prayer service in Jakarta. Attended by 8,000 Christians in the Jakarta Convention Center and led by Protestant and Catholic leaders, Wahid said the aim of the bombings was "to shake the government, create panic and fear so that the government cannot function."

He added that he was determined to keep the government out of religion, saying, "The state must not have any formal connection with religion." Though his stance pleases Christians and moderate Muslims, it antagonizes Muslim extremists in the country, who want the government to become formally Muslim and promote Islam throughout society.

That Wahid is a Muslim cleric with theological arguments to back up his liberal position annoys extremists even more. A Catholic bishop confided, "I sometimes think that all we have standing against the greater Islamization of this society is Wahid himself."

Police admitted they were aware of plans to make it a "bloody Christmas," which enabled them to foil many of the bombers. At the moment, however, no one knows who is responsible, and many doubt whether the authorities will ever know.

"Let's face it, we're still trying to find out the identity of those who organized the church burnings of 1996-1997," said a Catholic bishop.

Indonesia's 210 million people are about 80 percent Muslim, but there is a large Christian minority (10-14 percent) along with other religions. The country's 1945 constitution recognizes five religions as equal and strives to keep them out of politics.

"We all know that Indonesia will collapse if the religions and ethnic groups fight each other," said a government official.

But in the 1990s, former president Suharto, in order to boost a failing power base, began courting extremist Muslims and giving them positions of prominence. Much of the instability today stems from that fateful tactic.

The two million inhabitants of the islands of Maluku have been embroiled in a dreadful religious civil war since the beginning of 1999. Nearly 5,000 have been killed with over 180,000 displaced. Christians and Muslims have a rough parity in numbers, but the killing in 2000 worsened with the arrival in April of a Muslim jihad force of 3,000 men with artillery.

Many of Suharto's cronies wish to retake power, and it is thought that he has friends within the military who are not relishing the downgrading of their influence as Indonesia attempts to become a democracy.

According to Catholic analyst Franz Magnis Suseno, "A pro-Suharto strongman's best chance of gaining power is to foment so much chaos that everyone asks the army to restore power, and then he is ready to play the hero." He added, "Setting religions against each other is a classic destabilizing tactic, and one which -- alas -- would be very effective here in Indonesia."

If Christian leaders were right, and the Christmas Eve bombings were the first phase of a provocation campaign to make Christians think Muslims were killing them, then the second phase -- mosques being blown up at the end of Ramadan -- was mercifully averted.

"We have had a narrow escape," said a Jakarta pastor, "but the forces of destabilization will return."

Copyright © 2001 Compass Direct News Service. Used with permission.