Patrick Goodenough | International Editor | Wednesday, March 19, 2008
The Barnabas Fund, a charity working among Christians in Islamic countries, cited "credible reports" of threats against Christians by Jemaah Islamiah (JI), the terrorist network blamed for a number of bombings in Indonesia in recent years.
"Jemaah Islamiah is dedicated to creating a single Islamic state throughout Southeast Asia under shari'a law," the organization said in a dispatch on Tuesday. "It considers non-Muslims as legitimate targets and is active throughout the region."
Threats linked to important Christian observances are not unusual in Indonesia. In 2000, 19 people were killed in a series of coordinated Christmas Eve church bombings blamed on JI, a group with suspected links to al-Qaeda.
The bombings came at a time of deadly Muslim-Christian clashes in Maluku and Central Sulawesi provinces, northeast of Indonesia's main island of Java. Thousands died in the violence between 1999 and 2002.
Peace accords later were signed in the two affected provinces, although sporadic attacks have occurred since then. In 2005, three Christian schoolgirls in Sulawesi were beheaded by killers -- some linked by police to JI -- who left one of the severed heads in a bag at the door of a nearby church, with a note threatening to kill 100 more young Christians.
Elsewhere in the archipelago, Islamist attacks, threats or pressure on local authorities have forced the closure of scores of churches in recent years.
JI's most high-profile actions were not aimed at Indonesian Christians, however. Its cells were responsible for four major attacks between 2002 and 2005, including two targeting tourists on the resort island of Bali, one at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta and one at an international hotel in the capital. Together they cost more than 250 lives.
Since then the network has sustained heavy losses, including the arrest of key figures. Some leaders are still at large, however, including one who escaped from Singaporean custody late last month and remains the target of a massive manhunt.
Prof. Zachary Abuza, a specialist on South-East Asia terror networks, said Wednesday reports of JI threats against Indonesian Christians this Easter did not surprise him.
"Sectarian violence was JI's bread and butter for years before they engaged in terrorist operations in Bali in October 2002," he said.
Given the security force crackdown after the bombings, many JI members had argued that attacks on Western venues were counterproductive - although not necessarily morally wrong - and "have advocated a return to the sectarian bloodletting that they engaged in" in Maluku and Central Sulawesi.
With setbacks like the arrest of top leaders and seizure of explosives during raids of JI safe houses last year, "a return to sectarian violence makes sense," said Abuza, professor of political science at Simmons College in Boston.
"They create a pool of young indoctrinated recruits, who have fought in defense of their religion, and reinforces their Manichean world view," he said. "Moreover Western governments put less pressure on the Indonesian government to react [than in the case of high-profile attacks against foreigners]."
Sidney Jones, a Southeast Asia-based senior advisor at the International Crisis Group, said Wednesday she had heard nothing to suggest planned attacks linked to Easter - or that JI was capable of mounting one if it wanted to do so.
"But there are some splinter groups here that have long seen local Christians as the enemy," she said.
Jones said local "anti-apostasy" groups had carried out attacks in places where local evangelical groups had been trying to convert Muslims, or where Christians were meeting in homes to sidestep regulations requiring community consent to build churches.
Those attacks were mostly against property rather than individuals, although one splinter group tried to murder a convert priest in October 2006, she said.
Attempts to reach the Indonesian Council of Churches for comment were unsuccessful.
The Australian government is warning its citizens of a "very high threat of terrorist attack" in Indonesia.
"We assess terrorists are continuing active planning of attacks," the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said in an advisory. "These attacks could take place at any time and could be imminent."
The department said Jakarta and Bali may be targeted, and strongly advised against all travel to Maluku and Central Sulawesi, "due to the unstable security situation and risk of terrorist attack." Foreigners could be directly targeted, or could be caught up in violence aimed at others, it said, noting that churches were among the potential targets.
More than 90 of those killed in attacks attributed to JI since 2002 were Australians.
Britain's Foreign Office also regards the threat of terrorism in Indonesia to be "high," warns against all travel to Maluku and Central Sulawesi, and says periods like Easter and Christmas are "a time of heightened tensions."
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