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Christians Don't Expect Eye for an Eye in Indonesia

After three of their own are executed, members of the minority group are skeptical about the fate of three similarly condemned Muslims.

October 11, 2006|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

DENPASAR, Indonesia — Maringan Simanjuntak wipes his brow in Bali's equatorial heat and talks in measured words about the fear and frustration of being Christian in the world's most populous Muslim nation.

Last month, Indonesia executed three Christians for inciting a mob that killed scores of Muslims six years ago in Central Sulawesi province. The executions led to widespread Christian violence across the area, where religious tensions have simmered for years.

Now Simanjuntak and the rest of the nation anxiously await another execution. This time, three Islamic militants face death by firing squad for their roles in the 2002 Bali bombing that killed 202 people here in a crowded tourist bar.

The 46-year-old tour guide wants an eye for an eye. But he doesn't expect to see the Bali bombers die: The Muslim-led government, he insists, takes care of its own.

"This country is a Muslim majority, and Christians are not offered the same protections under the laws," Simanjuntak said resignedly.

The executions have fueled new accusations of religious intolerance in this sprawling archipelago nation where 190 million of the 220 million residents are Muslims, compared with 20 million Christians.

Many believe judges at the Christians' trial bowed to pressure from hard-line Muslims to send the three farm laborers to their deaths.

"They were not just scapegoats, they were the 'offering,' " said a lawyer for the three, who goes by the single name Brodus. "This is discrimination."

Despite government denials, many believe the timing of the Christian executions is linked to the fate of the three Bali bombers, who sit on Indonesia's death row.

"I miss my father. But what can we do?" said Robert Tibo, whose 60-year-old dad, Fabianus, was one of those executed in Sulawesi. "We cannot fight the government. But it seemed officials were trying to pave the way for the Bali bombers' execution. They wanted to make it even between my father and the other Christians and the Muslims."

Ill will still lingers in Sulawesi in the wake of Muslim-Christian violence that swept the province between 1998 and 2002. Bombings, beheadings and machete attacks killed more than 1,000 people from both religious communities before the violence was brought to an end by an uneasy peace accord.

"For many Christians, there is a question of balance," Sidney Jones, senior project director for the International Crisis Group, a private think tank, said of the government's prosecutions. Muslims convicted in Sulawesi were given at most 15-year prison sentences, she added.

The result, Jones said, is that "there is this strong sense among non-Muslim minorities that they may not have a place in Indonesia."

Even in Bali, Indonesia's religious violence has left its lethal mark.

October usually means tourism, but the palm-shaded beachside bars and hotels stand mostly empty. Bali's two terrorist attacks -- the 2002 bombing and suicide blasts last year that killed 20 people -- each took place in October.

Law enforcement officials now refer to the month as "trouble season" and warn that another attack by Islamic extremists could incite violence with Bali's 3 million Hindus, who outnumber Christians and Muslims there.

At Kuta Beach, a graniterelief monument bearing the names of the victims stands at the site of the 2002 bombing, a place known to residents as Bali's ground zero.

Across the street, camera store employee Nyoman Puana says the bombers robbed residents of their livelihoods. Bali's economy depends on tourism for more than half of its income and jobs.

"The bombs crushed tourism all the way to the bottom," said Puana, 41. "People want to see justice take its course."

Many Indonesians say that the fear of sectarian violence has come only in recent years. For three decades, former dictator Suharto kept the nation's simmering religious and ethnic rivalries at bay. But after his fall in 1998, distrust boiled over in Sulawesi, where Muslims and Christians live in roughly even numbers.

Unrest broke out in the city of Poso after a rumor among Christians spread that Muslims had tried to ban alcohol consumption. The conflict soon spread to the countryside as Muslim and Christian mobs armed with homemade guns, spears and machetes waged attacks that included the beheadings of three Christian schoolgirls.

Eventually, militants from both sides were brought to trial.

The Christians, known as the Poso Three, were found guilty of several attacks, including a machete and gun assault on an Islamic school that left at least 70 dead.

Many Christians still seethe over the events leading up to the Sept. 22 executions. The men's final wishes -- from sending a last message to the president to having their relatives and spiritual advisors accompany them to the execution site -- were rejected by Indonesian officials.

Shortly after 1 a.m., the three were led to the airport grounds near their Sulawesi prison and shot. The bodies of two men were sent home for burial.

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