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Global News from the Frontlines



Violence Spreads around Situbondo, East Java
by Alex Buchan

HONG KONG, October 16 (Compass)--Pentecostal Pastor Ishak Christian, his wife, daughter, a niece, and a church worker, were burned to death as three thousand Muslims ran amok in a church-burning spree in Situbondo, East Java, on the 10th of October, 1996. Traveling by motorcycle, rioters torched seven churches in Situbondo, as well as two Christian schools and an orphanage, then fanned out to neighboring cities. By the time police restored order, a total of twenty-five places of worship had been burned in seven cities. This incident constitutes the worst outbreak of violence perpetrated by Muslims against Christians in Indonesia in recent years, and brings to over fifty the number of churches burned in 1996 alone.

Triggering the riots was the blasphemy trial of a Muslim sect leader, named Saleh, for allegedly teaching that the prophet Mohammed was not God's envoy to the whole of humanity. Thousands had gathered outside the courthouse in Situbondo to hear the verdict. When it was announced Saleh was to be jailed for five years, the crowd revolted, having called for the death penalty. According to a church source, the rioters "started by burning the nearby Gethsemani Protestant church," and soon the mayhem spread. Eight churches, both Protestant and Catholic, were burned or vandalized in Situbondo; three in Penarukan, Asem Bagus, and Ranurejo; four in Wonorejo; four and a Buddhist temple in Besuki. Three schools, a monastery and an orphanage were also burned in Situbondo. One hundred and twenty arrests were made, and currently forty remain in custody.

"The Christians in Situbondo are living in fear," said Monsignor Herman Josef Pandoyo Putra O Carn, the regional Bishop, on his way to visit. He said, "I'm going there to help bolster their spirits and ask the local police and military chiefs to provide protection for the Catholic community." A Statement of Concern from "the Christian organizations and Christian community and The Christian Churches of East Java" was sent to President Suharto on the 15th, urging the authorities to "speedily take charge and proceed according to current law."

Privately, concern is being expressed as to whether the authorities are capable or even willing to see justice done. East Java Governor, Basofi Sudman, stressed that since the incident was so sensitive, they would clamp down on all reports and investigate quietly. He stated, "This does not mean we will hide the facts, but this issue is very complex...let us agree to hush up the problem." The Christian community is still waiting for any charges to be brought against the rioters who destroyed ten churches on June 10th in Surabaya, 150 kilometers west of Situbondo. Even members of the Muslim community have expressed disbelief that the riots are spontaneous. Amien Rais, head of the reputedly 28 million-strong Muhammidiyah Islamic group, said, "The way it happened was so systematic, so organized -- it was inspired and directed by a certain group of people."

Indonesia, at 200 million, is the world's most populous Islamic state. Of this number, only some 22 million are Christian--a sizable minority that has always enjoyed ostensible equality under the law. Unlike some other Islamic nations, Indonesia is a secular state, which does not apply sharia law, though some speculate that these riots may be an attempt to change that. With the elderly president ailing, and elections due next year, Muslim fundamentalists may be seeking to destabilize his rule. At any rate, Asia's "third giant" (after China and India), will likely become more volatile politically and religiously in the coming years.

For further information, including photos of Situbondo, see this internet address:, then follow the pointer to "Persecutions".
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