By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent Worthy News
(Worthy News) - Indonesian President Joko Widodo pledged to break up a terror network Sunday after two suspected suicide bombers attacked a Catholic Church in the city of Makassar, injuring 14 worshipers.
“I strongly condemn this act of terrorism,” he said. “And I have ordered the police chief to thoroughly investigate the perpetrators’ networks and tear down the networks to their roots,” President Widodo added in an online message.
Police said the congregation was concluding their Palm Sunday Mass ahead of Easter on the island of Sulawesi when attackers detonated at least one device outside. The two suspects were the only fatalities, officials said.
Indonesian Red Cross personnel were seen carrying a body bag following the explosion outside the Catholic church in Makassar.
Soon after, Wilhemus Tulak, a priest at the church, told reporters that the church’s security guards suspected two motorists who wanted to enter the church.
One of them detonated his explosives and died near the gate after being confronted by guards. The priest said the explosion occurred at about 10:30 a.m. local time and that none of the worshippers was killed.
MORE CASUALTIES FEARED
The Makassar Mayor Danny Pomanto said the blast could have caused far more casualties if it had taken place at the church’s main gate instead of a side entrance.
Security camera footage showed a blast that blew flame, smoke, and debris into the middle of the road. While rescue services were on the scene, authorities were already looking into which radical networks the bombers came from.
Investigators looked into the possibility that the attack was linked to recent arrests of suspected militants, national police spokesman Argo Yuwono told the media.
Sunday’s blast came as the first significant challenge for Indonesia’s new national police chief, the first Christian to hold this post in 50 years in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.
Commissioner General Listyo Sigit Prabowo, a close ally of President Widodo, was sworn in on January 27, pledging to stamp out intolerance and radicalism and “promote diversity.”
President Widodo, a Muslim, had promised to tackle Islamic extremism amid broader concerns about violence or persecution of minority Christians.
Church leaders told Worthy News that the growing influence of Islamism by political adversaries could limit the president in implementing economic reforms.
Sunday’s blast also underscored concerns about more attacks while Easter approaches. “Soon, it will be Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting and praying. We usually experience problems around that time,” a well-informed Christian church worker told Worthy News.
The woman, who organizes a house church, spoke on condition of anonymity amid security concerns. She also participates in a group praying for the country. However, Jokowi, as Indonesia’s president is also widely known, urged people to remain calm and said everybody could worship "without fear."
Makassar, Sulawesi's biggest city, reflects Indonesia's religious makeup, with a sizeable Christian minority and followers of other religions.
Ansyaad Mbai, former chief of the National Counterterrorism Agency, told media the perpetrators of the latest attack were likely part of the same group responsible for a bombing in Jolo, the Philippines, in 2020. "They want to show that they still exist and use this to propagate their group and recruit new members.”
Indonesia's deadliest Islamist militant attack took place on the tourist island of Bali in 2002, when bombers killed 202 people, most of them foreign tourists.
However, in recent years churches were confronted with rising Islamic extremism.
In one of the bloodiest known recent attacks, at least four Christians were killed in a suspected Islamic terror attack on the Salvation Army charity church and service building in Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi province.
Six nearby houses of church members were also torched in the late November attack in the province’s Sigi Regency area in Lembantongoa village, Christians told Worthy News. Besides, house church meetings have been broken up by Muslim extremists.
Earlier, Police blamed the Islamic State-inspired Jamaah Ansharut Daulah group for suicide attacks in 2018 on churches and a police post in the city of Surabaya. That violence killed over 30 people.
Despite the attacks, worship services were expected to be held across the nation on Easter. Many services are also streamed online due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic that officials say killed some 40,000 people on a population of roughly 275 million.