Christianity—Roman Catholicism and Protestantism—is the most rapidly growing religion in Indonesia, although Christians are modest in number compared to adherents to Islam (8.7 percent of the population versus 86.1 percent according to the 2000 census). Christians have traditionally been well-educated and influential. Many Indonesian Chinese are Christians. Christians made up about 9.6 percent of the population in 1990). There are about twice as many Protestants as Catholics.

Most of the Christians in Indonesia are Protestants in West Papua (Irian Jaya, on New Guinea), Maluka and the northeast tip of Sulawesi. Most of the Catholics are in Timor. There are also many Christians in Kalimantan. Because the places where Christians and animist live are sparsely populated and occupy a lot of territory by some estimates Christians and animist occupy more of Indonesia than Muslims.

Indonesia recognizes Catholicism and Protestantism as separate religions rather than denominations of Christianity. This is to due with the fact that Indonesia was a former colony of the Netherlands, which fought some pretty nasty wars over the right to be Protestant. Protestants are led by the Community of Churches. Catholics are led by the Bishops Council of Indonesia.

Many Indonesian Christian were animist before they converted and many traditional beliefs remain or have merged with Christian beliefs.

According to “The Dutch sought to avoid European-style conflict between Protestants and Catholics by assigning particular regions for conversion by each of them. Thus today the Batak of Sumatra, the Dayak of Kalimantan, the Toraja and Menadonese of Sulawesi, and the Ambonese of Maluku are Protestant; the peoples of Flores and the Tetun of West Timor are Catholic. [Source: ]

“Christians generally have kept to themselves and avoided national politics. They lack mass organizations or leaders comparable to Muslim ones, but disproportionate numbers of Christians have held important civil, military, intellectual, and business positions (a result of the Christian emphasis upon modern education); Christian secondary schools and universities are prominent and have educated children of the elite (including non-Christians); and two major national newspapers, Kompas and Suara Pembaruan, were of Catholic and Protestant origin, respectively. Some Muslims are displeased by these facts, and Christians were historically tainted in their eyes through association with the Dutch and foreign missionaries and the fact that Chinese Indonesians are prominent Christians.

Anti-Christian sentiments still are pronounced in some places. A notice on a bulletin board at a Muslim school on Java in the mid 2000s read, “Beware of the dangers of Christianization in Indonesia.” It said that 15 million Muslims converted to Christianity between 1956 and 2004 and in 2004 “they intend to take the presidency.”

Regions of Indonesia with Large Christian Populations

Christianity is practiced in parts of Indonesia where there was formerly a large Dutch presence— parts of Sumatra and the Maluka islands (Moluccas) —or Portuguese presence—East Timor. There are also many Christians in West Papua, where American and European missionaries have had success converting tribes—some of them former headhunters—there. The Minahasa and the Batak in North Sulawesi, the Toraja in South Sulawesi and people in East Nusa Tenggara (islands east of Bali such as Flores) and on Nias island in North Sumatra are largely Christian. Hinduism is practiced on Bali, and animism is practiced by small groups of people in isolated areas scattered around the archipelago. There are many Protestants in Maluka because it was the center of the Dutch spice trade. There are any Catholics in Flores because of the work by Catholic missionaries there.

Most Christians in Indonesia are Protestants (about 19 million in 2009) of one denomination or another, with particularly large concentrations located in the provinces of Sumatera Utara, Papua, Papua Barat, Maluku, Kalimantan Tengah, Sulawesi Tengah, Sulawesi Utara, and Nusa Tenggara Timur. Large concentrations of Roman Catholics (a total of about 8 million in 2009) live in Jawa Tengah, Kalimantan Barat, Papua, Papua Barat, and Nusa Tenggara Timur. In addition, a substantial number of ethnic Chinese Indonesians are Roman Catholic. Catholic congregations grew less rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s, in part because of the church’s heavy reliance on European personnel. These Europeans experienced increasing restrictions on their missionary activities imposed by the Muslim-dominated Department of Religion (later called the Department of Religious Affairs). [Source: Library of Congress]

According to “ The Dutch government did not proselytize, but it allowed Christian missions to convert freely among non-Muslims. When Christians and Muslims were segregated on different islands or in different regions, relations were amicable. Since the 1970s, however, great movements of people—especially Muslims from Java, Sulawesi, and parts of Maluku into previously Christian areas in Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Maluku, and West Papua—has led to changes in religious demography and imbalances in economic, ethnic, and political power. [Source: ]

Christmas had traditionally been celebrated with late evening services. On Manado in Sulawesi, the Christmas season begins in October with the commencement of preparations for Christmas and the playing of Christmas carols in shopping malls. The season ends on the 3rd Sunday of January with a carnival party.

Many Christians are Chinese. See Chinese, Minorities.

History of Christianity in Indonesia

Christianity has a long history in the islands of what is now Indonesia. The Portuguese introduced Catholicism in the 16th century to some islands but the religion didn’t make much headway in the archipelago as a whole . The Dutch were mostly interested in trade and their version of Protestantism didn’t take hold either accept in the Moluccas and some other places. Mostly Christianity was introduced by various missionary groups that began arriving in significant numbers in the 19th century and made the greatest intrusions in Flores, parts of Sumatra and Sulawesi and later in Kalimantan and West Papua (Irian Jaya, on New Guinea).

Portuguese Jesuits and Dominicans began operating in Maluku, southern Sulawesi, and Timor in the 16th century. When the Dutch defeated Portuguese forces in 1605 and began what was to be more than 350 years of Dutch presence in the Indonesian archipelago, however, the Catholic missionaries were expelled, and the Dutch Reformed Church, a Calvinist denomination, became the dominant Christian presence in the region, as it would be until Indonesia became independent. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Because the United East Indies Company (VOC) was a secular enterprise, and Calvinism was a strict and intellectually uncompromising interpretation of Christianity that demanded a thorough understanding of what, for Indonesians, were foreign scriptures, Christianity advanced little in Indonesia until the nineteenth century. Only a few small communities endured, in Java, Maluku, northern Sulawesi, and Nusa Tenggara (primarily on the islands of Roti and Timor). After the dissolution of the VOC in 1799, and the adoption of a more comprehensive view of their mission in the archipelago, the Dutch permitted Christian proselytizing in the territory. This evangelical freedom was put to use by the more tolerant German Lutherans, who began work in Sumatra among the Toba Batak in 1861, and by the Dutch Rhenish Mission in central Kalimantan in 1845. In addition, Jesuits established successful Catholic missions, schools, and hospitals throughout the islands of Flores, Timor, and Alor in the late nineteenth century. *

The twentieth century witnessed the influx of many new Protestant missionary groups, as well as the continued growth of Catholicism and of large regional and reformed Lutheran churches. Following the 1965 coup attempt, all nonreligious persons were labeled atheists and hence were vulnerable to accusations of harboring communist sympathies. At that time, Christian churches of all varieties experienced explosive growth in membership, particularly among people who felt uncomfortable with the political aspirations of Islamic parties. *

Violence Between Christians and Muslims

Between 1949 and 1996 an estimated 50 Christian churches were burned down in all of Indonesia. In 1998, more than 200 were burned down. The are two major zones of conflict between Muslims and Christians: the area around Poso on Sulawesi and Ambon in the Molucca Islands.

Muslim-Christian relations have been tense since colonial times. These tensions were exacerbated under Suharto by the transmigration program, which brought large numbers of Muslims to previously predominately Christian islands and regions. The end of the Suharto regime in 1998 led to an uncorking of tensions. A lack of authority by commanders over Muslim and Christian troops in the outer islands has made the problem worse.

Conflicts between religions have often had more to do with class differences, particularly between the bureaucratic class and villagers. A key characteristic of Suharto’s New Order regime was the prevalence of security and order throughout the nation. Any outbreak of violence between ethnic or religious groups was quickly and sternly repressed. Tensions simmered below the surface, however.

Sporadic incidents had already begun in 1996 when the New Order still appeared quite solid, with church burnings in such places as Pasuruan (in Jawa Timur) and Tasikmalaya (in Jawa Barat). The scale and geographic spread of violence ramped up significantly, however, following Suharto’s resignation, as the national government became preoccupied with the political transition and security forces could no longer repress long-simmering local grievances.

Christian-Muslim Violence After the Fall of Suharto

After Suharto’s fall in 1998, ethnic and religious conflict erupted in several regions. Security forces were initially ineffective in regaining control because the police, poorly trained, poorly equipped, and understaffed, were ill prepared to handle large-scale unrest. The TNI (Indonesian military), stung by accusations of human-rights abuses, and resentful of the change in mission responsibility, was reluctant to intervene without a formal request for assistance from local authorities. More than 5,000 people were killed between 1999 and 2002. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Conflict broke out in Maluku Province in 1999 after a seemingly minor clash between a bus driver and a passenger who refused to pay his fare exploded into wide-ranging Muslim–Christian violence in Ambon that quickly expanded throughout the Maluku Islands. In January 1999, following the expulsion of Ambonese gangs from Jakarta to Ambon, as well as the breakdown of informal ethnic power-sharing agreements in Maluku Province, a minor traffic accident in Ambon exploded into terrible and sustained violence between Muslims and Christians in that city. Over the next three years, several thousand members of both communities were killed, and parts of the city became no-go zones for one group or the other. Extremist Muslim groups such as Laskar Jihad—allegedly supported by like-minded senior military officers— flocked to Ambon and played a major role in the dramatic expansion of violence in that city. *

The violence that erupted in Kalimantan Barat was even more horrific, as indigenous (Christian) Dayaks in rural Sambas District went on a rampage against Muslim Madurese in-migrants who had taken a prominent role in local commerce and agriculture. Hundreds were killed, some of their severed heads left on poles as a warning to others, and many houses burned to the ground. *

Islamic militants in Jakarta called for jihad to support their coreligionists on the islands. During the same period, Muslim–Christian violence flared in Tengah, around the cities of Poso and Tentena, where Laskar Jihad and the more sinister Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist group had established a training camp. Hard-line civilian and military sympathizers, who wanted to destabilize the regime of then-President Abdurrahman Wahid, collaborated to organize, train, equip, and arm the Laskar Jihad (Jihad Militia) and arranged the unimpeded transfer of several thousand members of the militia to both Ambon and Poso. This caused a major escalation of the conflict. The government declared a civil emergency, one step short of martial law. At the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, this conflict continues to fester, with sporadic incidents of violence by one community on the other.

Many of these conflicts appear, on the surface, to be between ethnic or religious communities, particularly Muslims and Christians. However, deeper analysis reveals that very localized struggles over political and economic power are the underlying cause. Unfortunately, these political and economic struggles have often been framed by conflict entrepreneurs as being rooted in ethnic or religious cleavages, making it easier to mobilize communities against one another. External forces have also exacerbated such conflicts. In Ambon, security forces were perceived as taking sides, the army with Muslim communities and police mobile brigades with Christian communities.

Muslim-Christian Violence on Java

In November 1998, five months after Suharto was ousted, after a fight between Christians and Muslims at a Jakarta nightclub, several hundred Ambonese Christians armed with samurai swords battled with Muslims armed with machetes. Six people were hacked to death and 11 churches were burnt down. One Western observer saw a dead man dragged through the streets and one of his killers lick the blood on his machete. Shortly afterwards an argument and streets fight between Muslims and Christians in Jakarta escalated into a street battle that left one person hacked to death and 22 damaged churches. In retaliation Christians burned down six mosques in East Timor.

In Jakarta, gang leaders offered $2.50 of each person wiling of offer their services as "volunteers" (thugs for Muslim youth gangs). In Surabaya a church was burned in retaliation after a dog, reportedly belonging to a Christian, urinated on the wall of a mosque. Churches have were also destroyed on Yogyjakarta

On Christmas Eve 2000, 36 bombs were set off at 11 churches in Riau, Batam and Jakarta and other places across Indonesia that left at least 19 dead and 120 injured. The attacks, which occurred in many cases while the churches were having Christmas services. The bombs used the same kinds of explosives, digital timing devises and detonators and went off minutes apart from each other. These are hallmarks of Al-Qaida-style attacks

Jemaah Islamiyah, the Muslim extremist group behind the Bali bombings in 2002, was also behind the Christmas Eve bombings. The attacks were reportedly ordered by the group to avenge the killing of Muslims by Christians in the Maluku islands and central Sulawesi in 1999 and 2000. Some of the members of Jemaah Islamiyah involved in the Bali bombing were also involved in the church bombings.

Christians and Muslims in the Moluccas

The 2 million or so people in the Moluccas are divided roughly equally between Christians (which include Indonesians and Chinese) and Muslims. Until the beginning of 1999 the two groups lived in relative harmony with one another.

Christianity has a 500 year history in the Moluccas and dates back to when Europeans involved in the spice trade began arriving on the islands. Most the Christians are descendants of people who have lived in the Moluccas since Dutch colonial times. Christianity took hold here because so many Christian Europeans arrived here to make money from the spice trade.

Some Muslims are descendants of people who embraced Islam before the arrival of the Dutch. Most are descendants of Muslims from elsewhere in Indonesia that came to the Moluccas. Many are settlers or relatives of settlers who arrived relatively recently from other islands in Indonesia. A few are descendants of offspring of indigenous Malays and black slaves brought to work on the plantations by the Dutch.

History of Christians and Muslims in the Moluccas

The Christians have traditionally had close ties with the Dutch. After the decline of the spice industry they became especially close with the Dutch. They were among the most loyal and trusted and best-educated Indonesians, making up a large share of the Dutch colonial army. They were favored over the Muslims for positions in the colonial government and were the larger of the two groups in terms of population.

After Indonesia became independent, the roles of Christians and Muslims were reversed and Muslims were favored over Christians for good jobs and other privileges. Muslims set up prosperous businesses while Christians were relegated to farming and fishing.

The Christians originally formed a majority on the Moluccas but their dominance was diluted in the 1960s and 70s when the Suharto government encouraged Muslims from other islands to move there. By 2000, the population was about 55 percent Muslim and 45 percent Christian. Even so Christians and Muslims lived in relative harmony. Intermarriage was even common in some places. But all that changed in 1997 and 1998 when the Indonesian economy collapsed and Suharto resigned and buried resentments and animosities came to the surface. Muslims and Christian were involved in a number of disputes over land and intervillage fighting was common, with resulting casualties and burning of property.


The Ambonese live on the island of Ambon and other islands in the Central Moluccas. The are also known as the Alifuru (interior of Ceram), Ambonese, Central Moluccans, the Moluccans, Orang Ambon and South Moluccans (exiles in the Netherlands). Maybe a million people live in the Central Moluccas. The population is pretty equally divided among Muslims and Christians. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

The Ambonese are very ethnically mixed. The Moluccas are near the traditional dividing line between Melanesian and Indonesians peoples and all sorts—Malays, Hindus, Chinese, Europeans, Arabs, other Asians—came to the islands for their spices. Genetic material and cultural traits from all these people have been left behind to varying degrees. ~

They strongest links to Melanesia are found among the Alifuru (Nua-ulu) in the interior of Seram (Ceram). These people were headhunters until they were pacified by the Dutch before World War I and have a secret men’s society, the only such society in Indonesia and something normally associated with Melanesian cultures. In the days, severed heads were said to part of their marriage and coming of age ceremonies. Much of their old ways have ben lost since they converted to Christianity. The culture of the Pasisir people who live in the coastal areas has been influenced much more by outsiders. ~

Muslim and Christian Ambonese

The Muslims and Christians in the Central Moluccas are surprisingly similar culturally. Their ideas about kinship and clan ties are similar, namely that villages or districts are made of several patrilineal clans led by a headman and clan descent is traced to a common ancestor. Marriage customs are also similar. Most are monogamous and in the past were arranged but today are largely love matches that follow two patterns: 1) formal request by the groom’s family, with the payment of a bride price; and 2) elopement. The latter is often preferred because it is way to avoid parental approval and the cost of a formal wedding. Divorce is rare among both Christians and Muslims. [Source: “Encyclopedia of World Cultures, East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, 1993) ~]

Ambonese Christians and Muslims have incorporated elements of ancestor worship and each other’s religions into their faiths and excluded members of other ethnic groups from their churches and mosques in an efforts to ensure ethnic harmony of the islands. Contrary to this effort has been efforts by conservatives in each faith to purify their religion and get rid of non-Christian and non-Muslim elements from the respective faiths.

In the Ambonese belief system ancestors are called upon for blessings and invited to villages ceremonies and incorporated into concepts of salvation and the afterlife. There are also Christian and Islamic devils and spirits that cause illness and bring misfortune. At funerals there are often non-Christian and non-Muslim rituals to pacify the spirit of the deceased. Spirits and evil forces are linked with concepts of disease and health although generally Ambonese Western-style doctors before traditional healers.

Violence In the Moluccas Between 1998 and 2002

Between late 1998 and 2002 some 5,000 people to 10,000 were killed in violence between Christians and Muslims in the historically peaceful Molucca islands. Some 500,000 people were forced to flee their homes.

People died in fires, mob attacks and clashes between rival gangs. Some of the dead were mutilated. Many were killed with homemade weapons, There were reports of men having their penises loped off and placed in their mouthes. It is widely believed that many of the incidents were deliberately incited by false rumors and carried by ordinary people riled up by gang leaders for political ends.

Building were set on fire with Molotov cocktails thrown by youths and with flaming arrows fired from mosque and churches. Entire Muslim and Christian villages were destroyed. Often the only thing that could stop the fighting were heavy rain storms. Much of the violence went on outside public and press scrutiny.

Christians initially had the upper hand. Most of the dead were Muslims in the early months of the clashes. Tables were turned in favor of the Muslims when they received help from Muslim fighters that came from Java and other places in Indonesia. Many belonged to Laskar Jihad.

Participants in the Violence in the Moluccas

Laskar Jihad (“Holy War Troop”) played a major role in the violence in the Moluccas. They had been active there trying to evict Christians and impose Muslim law before the violence began. Many of the fighters were from other islands. Describing the members he saw on one ferry, Tracy Dahlby wrote in National Geographic that they “looked like kids away from home for the first time, awkward, a little malnourished and slightly less dangerous than teenagers waiting in line for a rock concert.” He said they almost started a riot aboard the ship over the posting of the wrong times for five prayers to Mecca. See Terrorist Groups.

Muslim militants in the Maluka islands paraded around with raised machine guns and swords and donned black masks as they raided Christian villages and hacked and burned people to death. Several hundred Muslim fighters reportedly underwent training at terrorist camps in the southern Philippines before arriving in the Moluccas.

Many of the participants from the Moluccas were new recruits. Some were children and teenagers. One 14-year-old Protestants youth told the Los Angeles Times, “My job is to throw bombs and burn houses. I didn’t set out to kill, but because they started first, I have o kill them.” A 14-year-old Muslim fighter said, “I just want to fight a holy war. I bring the bombs and burn the houses.”

The Indonesian military was accused of inflaming rivalries and foment violence rather than maintaining peace and restoring order. In some cases generals were believed to have triggered the fighting so they could remain in control of profitable businesses. Some people believe that some of the violence against the Christians was supported by Suharto's followers. Documents found in a truck that exploded in east Java in June 2000 suggested payments from "one or two" of Suharto's children were made to Laskar Jihad. The leader of the group Jaffar Umar was a friend of Suharto. A film shot by AP in 1999 shows Indonesian soldiers providing cover for Muslim fighters who move into a Christian neighborhood in Ambon. The Muslim fighters carried weapons supposedly only available in Indonesia to members of the Indonesian military.

Beginning of the Violence Moluccas in 1999

The violence began in January 1999 after a Muslim-Christian dispute. Some said the dispute was between a Muslim bus driver named Salim and a teenage Christian passenger named Yopi. Others said it was between a Muslim Bugi migrant who pulled a knife on a bus driver and demanded money and was the culmination of escalating tensions between Bugi migrants and Christians who regarded them as a threat.

Within hours after the dispute broke out mobs roamed the streets wrecking buildings and fighting bloody street battles. It all happened so fast that many people believe it had to have been planned. Tensions had been rising for some time. Some say the tensions reached a boiling point after a letter on faked church stationary was circulated among Muslims that warned a “cadre of Christ” was going to attack them.

Who was behind the violence? Some blamed the military so it could keep in control in the Moluccas. Others blamed gangsters from Jakarta who local people thought could profit from the violence because it provided an excuse of them to be there. The people in the Moluccas didn’t want to blame themselves or religion. One teacher told National Geographic, “We were living in peace. We never experienced religious hatred before!”

Some traced the the beginning of the fighting back to November 1998, five months after Suharto was ousted: after a fight between Christians and Muslims at a Jakarta nightclub, several hundred Ambonese Christians armed with samurai swords battled with Muslims armed with machetes. Six people were hacked to death and 11 churches were burnt down. One Western observer saw a dead man dragged through the streets and one of his killers lick the blood on his machete. Shortly afterwards an argument and streets fight between Muslims and Christians in Jakarta escalated into a street battle that left one person hacked to death and 22 damaged churches. In retaliation Christians burned down six mosques in East Timor.

Violence In the Moluccas in 1999

After the outbreak of violence in the Moluccas in January 1999, Christian and Muslim gangs fought each other with swords, bows and arrows, slingshots, rocks, homemade guns, machetes, and gasoline bombs in Ambon (guns were not easy to come until the Indonesian military entered the fray). Smoked billowed from ruined buildings, the sound of gunshots and explosions filled the air. Streets were deserted and people blockaded themselves into houses. Men with knives stopped cars to check the religion of the occupants.

Muslim fighters wore white headbands. Christians, red ones. Individual incidents typically began with an argument over a racial slur or religious slight or a show of disrespect and were egged on by thugs and didn't end until people were killed or beaten up and churches or mosques were torched. After the main indoor market in Ambon was burned down, shoppers shopped at markets segregated by religion.

Muslim and Christian neighborhoods in Ambon were divided by sandbags and barbed wire with a Beirut-like "Green Line" forming the boundary marker.There was a "Sniper Alley," where many civilians met their doom. Muslim mobs carried blood-covered crucified rabbits and signs that read TOLERANCE NONSENSE, SLAUGHTER CHRISTIANS and NO ONE CAN STOP ISLAM. . The military later took control but soldiers often turned against each other according to their religions. There were clashes between police and the army. After a while no one seemed to remember what was being fought over and much of the fighting dissolved into tit for tat retribution.

Accounts of Violence in the Moluccas in 1999

Describing the killing the of a Christian suspected of defacing a mosque, Terry McCarthy wrote in Time, "When Jimmy Siahae hit the ground, that was the end. The Muslim mob never let him up again. Their weapons were dull — bamboo staves, kitchen knives, metal spikes — but their hatred was sharp... As the terrible retribution began, Siahae didn't have a prayer. They started on his head, beating and kicking. One man hacked at his left hand, nearly severing it the wrist. Knives plunged into his flesh. They stripped him to the waist so they could see the wounds they were inflicting."

"They were in no hurry to kill him. At one point a youth—he could not have been 18—leaned over and quite deliberately struck an ice pick between ribs deep into Siahae’s right lung. He pulled it out again and looked at the blood on the steel with great satisfaction...They youth was smiling....The mob turned its victim over and stomped on his face. It was literally beaten beyond recognition. One eyeball was out of its socket. Another of his tormentors sliced his ear with a blade. 'Let him die slowly,' someone said, and the mob laughed."

Describing a riot in Ambon, Kathleen Reen wrote in Time, "I rounded a corner and found 500 people locked in a tense showdown. Christians on one side, Muslims on the other. Women stood arm in arm staring at their rivals. Men stood stiff, holding machetes and rifles. Children crawled away down the sidewalk."

"Gunfire shattered the silence. The crowds roared, the men surged forward, and I hit the ground. For half a hour, I held my face to the hot pavement as the sound of bullets snapped past my ears. A man beside me hurled a homemade grenade into the crowd. A volley of automatic gunfire came back. I peered up and wondered where all the women had gone. Down the road, all I could see were Indonesian soldiers—facing us with their guns." Later "I saw a mob of Christian men walk by laughing, singing—and dragging a decapitated Muslim corpse. They waved. Among them was a young boy carrying a slingshot."

Violence in the Moluccas in 2000

The fighting reached a new level in mid 2000 when thousands of Muslim fighters belonging to Laskar Jihad arrived by ferry from Java. In some cases Laskar Jihad fighters attacked Christian villages and torched Christian homes and shot Christian civilians with M16s that may have been obtained from the Indonesian military. In a typical spat of violence an argument between a Christian village headman and a Muslim teenager led to a string of arson that left several dozen Christian houses burned to the ground.

One of the worst tragedies of the violence in the Moluccas occurred on Halmahera, where 152 Christians, including many women and children, were killed when 2,000 members of Laskar Jihad, armed with assault rifles, attacked Christians, armed only with homemade weapons, in the village of Duma. Many women and children were kidnaped.

In December 2000, at least 70 people were killed when Muslim fighters attacked the Christian village of Wainine on the island of Buro. The attacks appears to have been prompted by resentment among Muslims that Christians had all the good jobs at a factory there. Many of the dead were hacked to death. One man survived by running nonstop for an a hour and half. Four others hid in a closet for 24 hours and then crawled under wood piles until they reached the jungle.

In June 2000, a ferry carrying refugees fleeing violence in he Moluccas sank in storm, killing 500 people. The refugees were fleeing violence that left up to 200 people dead. See Disasters.

Forces Circumcision and Slave Raids by Muslim Groups in the Moluccas

In some places Christian were forced to convert to Islam and endure painful circumcisions. In November 2000, a groups of Muslims dressed in white and armed with swords from two nearby islands showed up on the mostly Roman Catholic island of Kesui and told the people there they had the choice of converting to Islam or being killed. Many converted and were forced to undergo circumcisions with dull razors and kitchens knives without anesthesia.

Several thousand Christian were forced to covert to Islam. They took an oath and a ceremonial bath and were required to chant Muslim prayers. Under the threat of death they signed statements that said they converted to Islam willingly. Both males and females, young and old, had to have circumcisions. The youngest were around two. The oldest were in their 80s. The same razor was used on several people and some people caught infections,. Some of those that didn’t comply were decapitated and had their heads displayed at a mosque as an example to others.

Many of the members of Laskar Jihad that were involved in violence in the Moluccas, arrived by ferry from East Java. In April, 2000, hard-line Muslim groups on Java demanded that the government take action to stop violence against Muslims by Christians in the Moluccas. They said if the government wasn’t going to do something about the situation they were. Government security forces were sent to ferry ports to prevent the hardliners from taking ferries to the Moluccas.

On the island of Ceram Christian children were kidnaped and turned into Muslim slaves. One 17-year-old Protestant boy said he was kidnaped, circumcised and forced to convert to Islam and then taken to another village where he was forced to work as a laborer. He told the Los Angeles Times, “I was required to work. They told us to build a house for their chief of the village. They didn’t pay me. They only gave me food. I felt like a slave.”

Laskar Jihad leader Jaffar Umar Thalib was arrested for inciting Muslims to attack Christian in the Moluccas. The military was accused of turning a blind eye to the activities of Laskar Jihad.

Peace Agreements That Ended the Christian-Muslim Violence in Ambon and Poso

The situation in the Moluccas began to improve significantly after a visit by then Vice President Megawati in mid 2001. A peace deal was signed in February 2002 after a series of meeting between Muslims and Christians. It involved establishing commissions for security and for social and economic affairs and called for the disarming and disbanding of militias. The deal did not involve Laskar Jihad. There were a few outbreaks of violence but the Moluccas were mostly calm after the deal.

In February 2002, leaders of the Christian and Muslim communities in Poso and Maluku Province signed two separate peace agreements aimed at ending three years of sectarian fighting. Both agreements were brokered by Muhammad Yusuf Kalla, who, two years later, was elected vice president of Indonesia. The level of conflict quickly fell, but sporadic violence remained endemic to the entire region. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Yusuf Kalla gained greater political prominence when, as coordinating minister of public welfare in President Megawati’s cabinet, he helped mediate negotiations to resolve the longer-running of these conflicts in Poso and Ambon. The resulting agreements were called Malino I (for Poso) and Malino II (for Ambon), after the location of the negotiations. Malino II has largely held, but peace has not yet fully returned to Poso. Kalla trumpeted his role in these accords in helping Yudhoyono win the 2004 presidential election and drew on these experiences in dealings with Aceh as vice president.

After the outbreak violence in the Moluccas there was a massive resettlement of residents from the islands there. North and South Sulawesi absorbed almost a half million refugees from the Moluccas. A ship carrying refugees was Moluccas was turned back at West Papua (Irian Jaya, on New Guinea).

Return of Violence in the Moluccas

In April and May 2004, clashes between Muslims and Christians in Ambon left at least 36 dead and 156 wounded. Mobs torched buildings. Sporadic gunfire was heard. No one knew who was shooting. There were some explosions. The clashes began when a little known Christian separatist group, the South Moluccas Republic Movement (RMS), tried to raise a flag to commemorate a failed bid for independence 54 year earlier. This prompted an angry response by local Muslims. It was the worst violence since the peace agreement was signed in 2002.

Muslim-Christian Violence in the Poso Area of Sulawesi 1998-2002

Poso district in central Sulawesi endured a wave of violence between December 1998 and 2002 that left between 1,000 to 2,500 dead and thousands more injured. Scores of churches and mosques were burned and 100,000 people were forced to flee their homes. At one point, so many had left Poso city—the capital of Poso district—it was described as a 'dead city'. [Source: Lorraine V Aragon, Inside Indonesia, April-June 2002. Aragon teaches anthropology at East Carolina University ]

Lorraine V Aragon wrote in Inside Indonesia, “It began as a street fight between hot-headed young men, one Protestant and one Muslim, during a tense local political campaign. The brawl quickly deteriorated into a religiously polarised battle in this formerly quiet, multiethnic region. Police and military forces could not, or would not, stop the arson and attacks between the two communities. The infrastructure of Poso city and surrounding towns was devastated. Refugees in holding camps suffered harsh conditions and burden locals — mostly Muslims in Palu and South Sulawesi, mostly Christians in North Sulawesi, Tentena, and the Lore Valley. Fear and vengefulness made it difficult to stop the cycle of bloodshed.”

History of the Muslim-Christian Conflict in Central Sulawesi

Lorraine V Aragon wrote in Inside Indonesia, “Dutch missionaries from the early 1900s converted indigenous animist groups in the mountainous interior of what is now Central Sulawesi province. The colonial administration envisioned these Protestants as an allied population buffer against Muslim-influenced coastal kingdoms. Many of these slash-and-burn farmers were resettled in model villages and taught wet-rice farming by the Dutch. Most groups living around Poso Lake, between Poso and the mission center of Tentena, came to identify themselves ethnically as Pamona.[Source: Lorraine V Aragon, Inside Indonesia, April-June 2002. ]

“The Japanese Occupation and independence in 1945 was followed by a chaotic period when Muslim rebels from South Sulawesi attacked interior animists and Christians. Yet, once the Suharto regime took control, the majority population of the region still was Protestant ('Kristen' in Indonesian), and Pamona leaders exercised partial control over the local bureaucracy.

“Much had changed by the end of Suharto's presidency. In 1973, Suharto designated Central Sulawesi as one of ten new transmigration provinces. The Trans-Sulawesi Highway was cut into the rugged mountain forests to ease the path for transmigrants. The new roads and settlements also attracted a flood of voluntary migrants, especially Muslim Bugis and Makassar people from South Sulawesi.

“The financial crisis beginning in late 1997 spurred further immigration into the ebony-producing Poso area. Entrepreneurial Muslims arrived from South Sulawesi to cash-crop cacao, an agricultural export that maintained an exceptionally high value during the crisis. Pamona Protestants lost their religious and ethnic majorities in the district. Many also had been displaced from their ancestral lands through processes of land commodification that had nothing to do with religion.

“Pamona Protestant Christians, like many interior groups in the outer islands, had also lost some of their indigenous political control. After the 1970s, much local authority was removed from customary councils of elders and transferred to a national bureaucracy. Modernist Muslims were installed in high-ranking military posts and Christians found it harder to get their leaders selected for local governance. By the end of his presidency, Suharto himself had become more pro-Muslim. Protestant mission funding became closely regulated. The government seized many schools and clinics originally funded by churches.”

Beginning of Muslim-Christian Violence in Poso in 1998

Lorraine V Aragon wrote in Inside Indonesia, “When the Poso violence began in December 1998, the district mayor (bupati) of Poso was a Muslim named Arief Patanga. Patanga's term of office was due to expire in June 1999. His district secretary (sekretaris wilayah daerah, sekwilda) was a Protestant Pamona named Yahya Patiro. This type of religious power-sharing at the district level had been known in earlier New Order Poso. Many Christians hoped Patiro would succeed his Muslim predecessor. Muslim factions, representing Bugis-influenced ethnic groups along the coast and towards South Sulawesi, promoted Muslim candidates. The new economic stakes raised the election heat. The 1999 Regional Autonomy Laws promised a shift in control over resources from the national to the regional level. Both Muslim and Christian elites in Poso viewed this election as critical to their future access to government contracts. [Source: Lorraine V Aragon, Inside Indonesia, April-June 2002. ]

“The street fight that began in the heart of Poso city on the eve of both Christmas and Ramadan, 1998, fed into religious tensions promoted by inflammatory graffiti during the campaign. Soon, supporters from allied towns arrived to reinforce the Protestant and Muslim mobs. After a week of chaotic street fighting and arson, about 200 people were injured and 400 homes burned. Reportedly, Christians suffered most of the damage in what became the conflict's 'first phase'. A Pamona Protestant leader of the political campaign, Herman Parimo, was jailed for heading a group of fighting Christians. No Muslims were prosecuted. This apparently partisan response by the authorities increased Protestant resentment.

Muslim-Christian Violence in Poso Escalates in 2000

Lorraine V Aragon wrote in Inside Indonesia, “A second escalating street fight occurred in mid-April 2000. By that time, a Muslim (although not the prior incumbent's favourite) had been installed as the new district mayor. When a Muslim youth reported being knifed by a Protestant, a Muslim posse began a retaliation campaign that the police could not handle. Supporters with homemade weapons again arrived from allied Muslim and Protestant towns. Army personnel followed from Makassar, South Sulawesi, but the fighting continued for over two weeks. By early May, over 700 homes had been burned, mostly belonging to Christians, along with several church buildings and a police barracks. Thousands of refugees, mostly Christians, fled. [Source: Lorraine V Aragon, Inside Indonesia, April-June 2002. ]

“The 'third phase' began only three weeks later when a group of Christians made a night-time raid on the Muslims they considered responsible for the earlier destruction of Christian neighbourhoods. The masked 'ninja' group of about a dozen men is alleged to have included both Protestant Pamona and Catholic immigrants from Flores who resided in the Poso district. Fighting then intensified throughout the region, abetted by teams of local Christian militias. This third phase culminated in a massacre of Javanese men who fled to a Muslim boarding school in a transmigration area south of Poso. Over a hundred were executed with homemade weapons, their bodies tossed in the Poso River and mass graves. The fighting continued until the end of July 2000, when three Catholic ringleaders were captured. These Flores immigrants were tried between December 2000 and April 2001, when they were sentenced to death.

“Despite a few high-profile reconciliation efforts in late 2000, many criticised the lack of government aid and biased processes of law enforcement. Sporadic fighting continued and most refugees were too scared to return home. Instead, the population underwent an increasing de facto religious segregation - Muslims in Poso city, Protestants in the highland towns.”

Muslim-Christian Violence in Poso in 2001

Lorraine V Aragon wrote in Inside Indonesia, “During the first months of 2001, violence worsened again. In addition to surprise attacks on farmers, disgruntled factions planted bombs in religious buildings and police posts. After the three Catholics were sentenced to death, attacks on Muslims increased. This began to be called 'phase four.' Then in July, the Laskar Jihad group, based in Yogyakarta, sent emissaries to meet with senior religious and government leaders in Central Sulawesi. [Source: Lorraine V Aragon, Inside Indonesia, April-June 2002. ]

“Violence surged again at the end of 2001 when thousands of well-armed Laskar Jihad troops were added to the volatile mix of local fighters. Over a hundred more persons were killed in what we can call 'phase five'. By mid-November, desperate pleas emerged from Protestant towns. Christians reported invasions by Muslim militias who threatened to rule the area by the end of Ramadan. At least half a dozen churches and 4,000 houses in thirty villages were burned, seemingly under the blind eye of security forces. Roughly 15,000 more people fled their homes. Muslim militias seized control of fuel stations and roadside checkpoints, where some displayed posters of Osama bin Laden. In the aftermath of September 11th, these reports caught the attention of government officials and human rights workers in the United States and elsewhere, and led to pressure on the Indonesian government to control radical Muslims.”

Peace Deal Sort of Ends Muslim-Christian Violence in Poso

Lorraine V Aragon wrote in Inside Indonesia, “On December 4, 2001, Indonesia's chief security minister, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, traveled to Sulawesi to meet with Muslim and Christian leaders. Jusuf Kalla, the Coordinating Minister for the People's Welfare (Menko Kesra), was assigned as mediator. Roughly fifty delegates, half Muslim and half Christian, met separately with Kalla in Malino, South Sulawesi. [Source: Lorraine V Aragon, Inside Indonesia, April-June 2002. ]

“On December 20, 2001, a ten-point bilateral peace agreement was announced. With the arrival of 4,000 military and police, as well as national and international attention on Central Sulawesi, Christmas proceeded peacefully. At New Year's, four Protestant churches were bombed in the provincial capital of Palu, but implementation of the accord continued.

“The Malino Agreement includes some unarguable points: both sides should stop fighting, obey laws, expect security forces to be firm and fair, reject unauthorised 'outside' interference or militias, stop slander, and promote apologies and respect for all traditions and religions. Problems likely will come in implementing points such as weapons collection and the return of property to 'pre-conflict' status. It will be difficult to divide rehabilitation funds fairly and resettle about 90,000 refugees, who may claim land now occupied by other mobile citizens. Finally, there is the lingering issue of power sharing at the political level, an issue raised by the Christian delegates, but not included in the final peace agreement.

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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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