A strange thing happened in Indonesia last fall: The armed Islamic extremists who terrorized churches on the Maluku and Sulawesi islands for nearly three years suddenly left.
Their stated reason for leaving: They had completed their mission of ridding the areas of Christians. Maluku was once 40.5 percent Christian; Sulawesi, 16.4 percent.
"They're done with religious cleansing there," says Paul Marshall, senior fellow at Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom. "There are refugees who have fled, and there are refugees who have been driven out of their villages but are starting to move back."
The well-armed militias have left 88,700 people from Maluku and Sulawesi as refugees, according to Connie Snyder of International Christian Concern.
In all, since 1999 Muslim extremists reportedly displaced 600,000 Christians in Indonesia, though many of those have returned. Thus the "religious cleansing" was neither total nor permanent.
Threats remain on the Indonesian archipelago, which is 80 percent Muslim and 16 percent Christian. Most of the Laskar Jihad extremists returned to their native Java, from which they plan to launch assaults on other islands. At least 3,000 Islamic extremists have amassed in West Papua (Irian Jaya)—a 73 percent Christian region that Laskar Jihad has declared as its next target.
Additionally, Laskar Jihad and the Islamic Defenders Front left the locals in Maluku and Sulawesi better armed and trained to fight returning Christians. Since conflict broke out in 1998, local mobs have destroyed more than 600 churches.
Marshall says the absence of the Islamic militias in Maluku and Sulawesi, though, should enable inhabitants to build peace on 2001 agreements. "Agreements have been reached before," he says, "and it was more the outsider groups that refused to go along with them."
Asian intelligence officials suspect links between Laskar Jihad and international terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda.
Some observers believe such links led to Laskar Jihad's return to Java just days after the bombing of a Bali nightclub last Oct. 12. Laskar Jihad had enjoyed support from some of the Indonesian security forces, which began to erode after the Bali bombing.
The attack at the Bali nightclub killed 190 people. The group reportedly behind the attack, Jemaah Islamiyah, was also implicated in church bombings that killed 19 people on Christmas Eve 2000.
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Previous Christianity Today stories about persecution in Indonesia include:
Christian Villages Burn Again in Central Indonesia | Protective armed forces are withdrawn before the attack. (Aug. 20, 2002)
Christians Under Threat in Central Indonesia | Jihad fighters foiled in initial bid to massacre Tentena Christians. (Dec. 5, 2001)
The Hard-Won Lessons of Terror and Persecution | Overseas Christians reflect on painful experiences (Sept. 26, 2001)
Persecuted Indonesian Christians Evacuated | International Christian Concern and Christian Aid raising $1.2 million to rescue 7,000. (Mar. 19, 2001)
Indonesian Province's Anniversary Protest Controlled | Violence was anticipated from independence fighters who massacred non-Papuan Christians last month. (Dec. 4, 2000)
Christians and Muslims Still Fighting, Dying in Ambon | Governor, others decline to intervene in jihad attacks. (Oct. 4, 2000)
Indonesian Island Attacks Go Unnoticed | World ignoring plight of Christians in Ambon, visitors say. (Aug. 21, 2000)
Daily Life in the Maluku Islands: Chaos, Fear, and the Threat of Violence | Christians plead for international monitoring to prevent Jihad raids, and more aid for refugees. (Aug. 1, 2000)
Churches Pressure for Swift Action to Calm Maluku Violence | Indonesian army joining in attacks on Christians. (July 21, 2000)
Indonesian Religious Riot Death Toll Dwarfs 30 New Corpses | Death count has passed 1,700. (Mar.3, 2000)
Maluku Islands Unrest Spreads to Greater Indonesia | Violence on Lombok Island may hasten government intervention. (Jan. 25, 2000)
Ministries Intensify As East Timorese Refugee Camps Grow | Evangelicals working furiously to meet physical and spiritual needs. (Sept. 6, 1999)
Dozens Die in New Clashes | 95 killed in religious riots in Maluku province. (Mar. 1, 1999)
Christians Killed, Churches Burned | Muslim mobs vent their rage against Indonesian Christians. (Jan. 11, 1999)
Muslim Mobs Destroy Churches | 10 Protestant churches severely damaged in riots. (Sept. 16, 1996)
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