Muslims die in Christian mob revenge
January 20, 1999

The Sydney Morning Herald

Louise Williams

Armed Christian mobs, ostensibly seeking revenge for attacks by Muslims on Indonesia's Christian minority, rioted for the second consecutive day on the island of Ambon, marking Islam's most important national holiday with bloodshed and threatening a new wave of religious violence.

The airport was closed to all but military flights and military reinforcements were called in to Ambon, where two mosques and scores of houses, shops, cars and motorcycles were burned in a rampage which, according to reports, has cost nine lives and left 30 injured.

"The town is deserted because nobody dares to leave their homes," reported the Rev Frans Luthermas.

A local Muslim community leader, who was contacted by telephone, said the city was paralysed and hundreds of Muslims were seeking refuge in military compounds.

Mr Haji Salim said the attacks were to avenge the lynchings of six Christians by Muslim hardliners on the streets of Jakarta in November.

Five of the those victims were Ambonese working as security guards in Jakarta's predominantly Christian Chinatown.

Mr Salim said the violence this week began after about 200 Christian Ambonese arrived by boat from Jakarta, about 2,300 kilometres away.

According to reports on Ambon the violence was sparked after a Muslim group attacked a Christian man, whom they accused of desecrating their holy day and insulting Islam by being drunk.

That attack apparently provoked a backlash by Christians, who armed themselves with machetes and harvesting knives and rampaged through the city.

Ambon is one of Indonesia's small number of majority Christian islands, where Muslim migrants have moved in to take control of some local businesses. The Muslims also hold many key Government jobs.

Indonesia is a majority Muslim nation. About 90 per cent of its 200 million people profess an allegiance to Islam.

The Ambon riots erupted shortly after the first prayers on Tuesday which were called to mark the most holy of Islamic holidays, the celebration of the end of the fasting month.

The attacks on Muslims at this time raise fears they may provoke revenge attacks on Christians in other parts of the country. Indonesia's Antara news agency quoted the provincial police chief, Colonel Karyono, as saying: "This is no longer a purely criminal (case), but tends towards ethnic-race-religious-intergrouping conflict and a lot of citizens are being led astray by rumours."

Mr Salim said the riots were continuing. "We don't have the courage to go out of our homes. We can hear shootings. We can hear fires. Lots of Muslims are sheltering with the military."

He said there were long-standing tensions within the multi-religious, multi-ethnic society on Ambon, which was once the most important trading post of the Spice Islands and a centre for European Christian missionaries.

Political analysts fear that the deep economic recession and intensifying jockeying among Indonesia's political elite in the lead-up to June's national elections will provoke further violence across the country as its myriad ethnic and religious groups are played off against one another.

On the island of Aru, near Ambon, eight people died and 11 were injured in a weekend inter-village brawl which took four days to quell.

Last week at least six people were killed and scores of homes destroyed in a week of bitter fighting between Muslims and Christians in a village on the island of Sulawesi.

Severe economic hardship and rising crime and lawlessness are fuelling social tensions and Indonesia's communities are becoming more reactive to apparent insults. The timing of the Ambon attacks is sure to anger many Muslims.