Christians versus Muslims

Indonesia is an island nation of some 210 million people, where nearly 90 percent of the population is Muslim, plus 8 percent Christian together with smaller communities of Hindus, Buddhists and others.

Not only in East Timor in this part of the world is there religious-based strife. In Ambon, the provincial capital of the Moluccas, the Spice Islands of old, violence and chaos – caused by religious differences between the Christians and Muslims – reached new depths in 1999 and early 2000. This small city, once the home of 350,000 people, has torn itself apart, with Muslims and Christians retreating into guarded enclaves served by separate hospitals, schools, banks, markets, harbors and government services. Separating these enclaves are burned-out no man’s lands patrolled by soldiers and often infested by snipers.

Until his demise, Suharto, the former president, had been able by sheer force, to repress these differences in this and throughout this nation of 13,000 islands. Until now, that is.

Today, the fear is that the violence in places like Ambon will spread. Already, one sees similar clashes in the resort island of Lombok, attacks on churches in Jogjakarta and rallies in the capital of Jakarta itself, where tens of thousands of Muslims enraged by accounts of violence against them, shout their readiness to die in a Muslim holy war.

The roots of Ambon’s warfare go back to precolonial times more than 400 years ago, when the Dutch, the British and the Portuguese competed for the region’s rich trade in nutmeg and cloves. They brought Christianity where Arab traders earlier had brought Islam. The Spice Islands became the most Christian of Indonesia’s regions, about equally divided between the faiths.

In the 1970′s an influx of Muslim traders began to tip the balance of the religious communities, bringing more frictions that were easy to exploit. In 1999, more than 100,000 people were driven from their homes by violence which ensued from a traffic dispute in January of that year in which a Muslim minibus driver argued with a Christian passenger.

Again, during 2000 more than 2,000 people had died from this religious-based violence; untold property lost or damaged, and incalculable damage has been done to the social and civil infrastructure of the society

Attempts to end the violence and bring peace continue. As Strategic Forecasting wrote in its February 13, 2002, intelligence briefing, the so-called Indonesia Island Agreement recently signed won’t halt religious clashes, stating the “Rival Christian and Muslim factions in Indonesia’s Molucca Islands signed a peace agreement Feb. 12, 2002. But given the highly volatile conditions, there is little reason to believe the violence will end any time soon.”

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