Severed telephone lines into Ambon represented just the latest outrage "holy warriors" have visited upon the Christian population in the provincial capital. Cut communications isolated parts of the city, as well as outlying areas where Christians sought refuge to escape fighting that has overtaken many parts of Indonesia's Maluku islands, a remote but populous province northeast of Indonesia's main island, Java.
Already the Christian population has been on the run. In late July, jihad fighters issued an ultimatum for Ambon Christians to vacate the city by month's end. Many had already fled after months of fighting left thousands dead and much of the city burned and in ruins.
But where could they go? Some took to mountainous villages where they now face food shortages and isolation from the outside world. Those who took to the sea are faring little better. Off Jayapura, the main city in the neighboring province of Irian Jaya, military and civil leaders impounded a ferry carrying over 4,000 passengers from Ambon. Local authorities refused the state-owned ferry permission to berth or to disembark the refugees because of fears they might bring further violence with them. According to a port official, the leaders forced the ferry to remain anchored about a mile out to sea July 31. Authorities also refused sanctuary to Maluku refugees in other ports in Irian Jaya, and in North Sulawesi, another nearby province reached by sea. Already 30,000 refugees from Maluku have fled to North Sulawesi. On June 29, a ferry packed with refugees sank off North Sulawesi. The ferry, built to hold 200 passengers, carried 500 people attempting to flee the fighting.
Maluku Christian leaders say their churches have been devastated since violence between Christians and Muslims began 18 months ago. Since last January, they say, Muslim extremists have killed nearly 3,000 Christians and destroyed 455 churches. Emptied cities, in some cases, are filling up with jihad supporters. Christian leaders there believe up to 1,000 Muslims have also been killed. The fighting has driven over half a million people-nearly all Christians-from their homes.
At least 20 church workers lost property on Ambon, according to one source. Indonesians who assisted missionary efforts lost their lives. One mission worker, who asked not to be identified because of the danger posed by ongoing fighting, said a jihad fighter shot one of his assistants. Another assistant died in the June 29 ferry sinking.
Observers offer varied explanations for the conflict. One story has it that the Ambon fighting began in January 1999 with a traffic accident between a Christian bus driver and a migrant Muslim bicyclist. Most agree that the roots of contention run deeper.
Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, yet Maluku is one of five provinces with a Christian majority. Maluku Christians believe they have become a testing ground for radical Islamic infiltrators, who want to restructure the country's political system along strict Islamic dictates.
Christians and Muslims coexisted for centuries in Maluku until gangs of troublemakers showed up from other islands. They typically provoke incidents like the argument between the bus driver and the cyclist, which in turn lead to riots, torching of Christian landmarks, and wholesale destruction. Their campaign coincides with a power vacuum created since President Suharto, who ruled Indonesia for more than 50 years, was forced from office in May 1998. President Suharto was allied with Indonesia's ethnic Chinese elite, who are predominantly Christian, and were held responsible for the financial collapse that led to his ouster. His successor, B. J. Habibie, propped up Islamic cooperatives to replace the Chinese ruling business class, but a corruption scandal also led to his removal. Current president Abdurrahman Wahid is a Muslim cleric who has raised the visibility of the Islamic elite while trying to steer past its radical factions.
That seems to have only emboldened the jihad element. In March and April of this year, radical Muslims began paramilitary training with the outspoken purpose of going to Maluku to wage "holy war" against Christians. Three thousand jihad troops, known as Laskars, or "holy warriors," arrived from Java, Indonesia's main island, in May. They descended on the Christian village of Duma, on the northern Maluku island of Halmahera. On June 19, the jihad militias killed over 200 Christians in Duma. They destroyed 300 homes. Witnesses say 40 Christian women and children were kidnapped by the Muslim militias and taken away in trucks. Their whereabouts are still unknown.
"The situation has drastically changed with the arrival of jihad fighters who are armed to the teeth," said Lawrence J. Goodrich, spokesman for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. Mr. Goodrich described the fighting prior to that as "a bunch of thugs from this village attacking thugs from that village"-the pervasive view among international agencies and human-rights groups prior to the latest offensive by jihad fighters.
Many groups, focused on the fight for independence in East Timor and its dearth of UN operations, have ignored the violence in Maluku. "This is much more serious for Indonesia than East Timor because it involves a conflict of elites in Jakarta," former presidential aide Umar Juoro told The New York Times.
"The political elements outweigh the religious elements of the conflict on a grand scheme, but locally it is played out in religious terms. Muslims are persecuting Christians," said the unnamed mission worker.
In a July 31 letter to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the religious freedom commission said it was "deeply concerned" about violence between Christians and Muslims in Indonesia. Commission chairman Elliott Abrams wrote: "There is evidence that the Indonesian government is not controlling its armed forces, resulting in murder, forced mass resettlement, and torture."
Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.) traveled to Indonesia in May to investigate the fighting. He said the influx of Laskar jihad fighters "has only happened through complicity of members of the military who have allowed a mass influx of men and arms into the Ambonese communities." In footage shot July 15 and 16 by Associated Press Television News, Indonesian soldiers and an armored vehicle were seen providing covering fire for Muslim fighters attacking a Christian neighborhood.
In a July speech in the U.S. House of Representatives, Mr. Pitts charged that leaders of the jihad militias are Suharto supporters. President Suharto has maintained his base of support among the military. He has reportedly used it to destabilize the presidency of Mr. Wahid, who plans to take the Indonesian president to trial on corruption charges, if he can stay in power long enough. Mr. Pitts said Indonesian soldiers were seen fighting alongside the jihad militants in Ambon last month. He called for a reappraisal of U.S. military aid to Indonesia and said U.S. sanctions could be imposed if the government or military is assisting in religious persecution.
The Jakarta government's response to the Maluku fighting has appeared inept, if not willfully negligent. Mr. Wahid announced a plan to evacuate Christians and seal off the islands after the June 19 attacks. But another shipload of 2,000-3,000 jihad troops arrived on June 24 (bringing the total to nearly 7,000). The Muslim fighters then burned churches, police buildings, and the Christian University in Ambon.
Mr. Wahid also vowed to protect Christians leading up to the July 31 ultimatum in Ambon. He sent army and marine forces to reinforce police brigades near government buildings and some Christian areas in Ambon. In Batu Gantung he stationed four tanks in front of a church. Three navy warships patrolled Ambon Bay. If quiet existed in Ambon, however, it was not because of the military presence; it was because most everyone had already fled.