Papua: A Christian People Seriously at Risk

Monday, December 1, 2003

By Elizabeth Kendal
World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission (WEA RLC)
Special to ASSIST News Service

AUSTRALIA (ANS) -- The indigenous people of Papua (Irian Jaya) are Melanesian and predominantly Christian, estimated by Operation World at over 90%, and mostly Protestant. They have been living under Indonesian rule since 1963. The Indonesian military (which has invested heavily in Papua's resources) has been involved in gross human rights abuses against the oppressed indigenous Papuans. In recent years, primarily since East Timor achieved independence, Papua has seen a dramatic influx of pro-Indonesia militias and Islamic militants, particularly Laskar Jihad. Islamists saw East Timor as 'part of the Islamic world' (bin Laden, November 2001). They no doubt see Papua the same way.

In 2001 the Indonesian government decreed autonomy for Papua. However the government reneged and divided Papua into three provinces against the will of the Papuans, thus violating the Special Autonomy Law. This division of Papua has created extreme tensions. Over the past 40 years, Javanese transmigration has seriously altered the ethnic and religious demography of Papua. One consequence of this division will be the Islamisation of Papua, with two of the new provinces being majority Muslim.

The feared militia leader Eurico Guterres is reported to be living now in Papua, where he has established a 200-strong - and growing - Laskar Merah Putih (Red and White Warriors) militia. Guterres was convicted and sentenced to ten years' jail for his role in leading his militia in the August 1999 referendum massacres in East Timor, but was released pending an appeal. During his trial, Guterres boasted that his militia was supported by the Indonesian military and funded by a government official in Jakarta.

Complementing his presence will be Inspector-General Timbul Silaen, as police chief of Papua. He was East Timor's police chief during 1999, and had been implicated in the attack on Bishop Belo's compound, as well as the Liquica church massacre, amongst other crimes. In August 2002 an Indonesian court acquitted Silaen of gross human rights abuses and crimes against humanity in East Timor.

Sources report that the Indonesian military are actively trying to provoke an incident so they can justify a full-scale military assault, with militia and Laskar Jihad support. Papuan Church leaders fear if that happens, Papua might be closed off to the outside world and an ethnic cleansing and jihad unleashed. This could result in literally the genocide of a Christian people.