Forced Conversions To Islam Continue in Indonesia

Saturday, January 13, 2001

SANTA ANA, CA (January 13, 2001) -- A growing body of evidence confirms reports that Christians in Indonesia's Maluku Islands have been forced to convert to Islam under threat of death, although Muslim clerics deny the claims.

Christian refugees, church representatives and even government leaders are troubled by the accounts of forced conversion, the most recent coming just before Christmas and the Muslim feast days celebrating the end of Ramadan. Some of the accounts have reportedly included circumcision of both males and females as part of the conversion "process."

"There is an effort by Islamic extremists to convert Christians to Islam," said Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, a Muslim scholar known for his message of tolerance, in a December 22 speech in Jakarta. "This is not right."

The forced conversions represent a disturbing trend in the region, also known as the Moluccas, 1,500 miles east of Jakarta. About 5,000 people have been killed in the two-year-old religious conflict between Muslims and Christians.

Maluku Governor Saleh Latuconsinua, a Muslim, told the media December 20 that a fact-finding visit had indeed proved the allegations of forced conversions. Muslim clerics in the islands admitted that some Christians had changed religions, the Associated Press reported on December 22. But the clerics denied any coercion was involved.

"The claim that they were forced to become Muslims is baseless. They voluntarily converted to Islam," the Associated Press quoted an official at the Al Fatah Mosque in Ambon as saying.

But interviews with Christian refugees forced to flee their homes told a different story. Some reported being forced to convert at gunpoint. Some feared attacks on their families if they did not convert. Others reported that they were circumcised and had their heads shaved.

Some of those interviewed said they did not wish to end up like two Protestant teachers, Mr. E. Rumatera and David Balubun, who were killed on December 1 for refusing to convert. According to the Crisis Centre of Ambon, a Roman Catholic monitoring agency, a total of 615 Catholics have been forcibly converted thus far, and "a few hundred protestants." But the location of over 1,000 other Christians is still unknown.

"I only said yes to save myself," said one refugee quoted by the Associated Press. Another reported Indonesia's armed forces cooperated in the forced conversions.

Christina, a Christian refugee from the island of Kesui, described in a telephone interview with Christian leaders how she underwent circumcision to escape death. Many of those listening were skeptical of her claims until she described her circumcision in detail. An estimated 3,000 Muslim jihad soldiers attacked Kesui in late November. Several Christians were killed and hundreds are reportedly still being held against their will. Muslim jihad soldiers attacked Kesui on November 23 and the neighboring island of Teor on December 10, to which many Kesui Christians had fled.

Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim nation. About 85 percent of the country's population of 210 million is Muslim. However, the Maluku Islands have historically had a more even mix of Christians and Muslims, and in many areas, Christians still form the majority.

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