On Friday, November 27, a jihadi attack took place against Christians in Sulawesi, one of Indonesia’s largest islands. This vicious attack resulted in the mutilation and death of four members of the local Salvation Army, including at least one beheading, along with the torching of several homes and a Christian house of worship.
Asia News reported,
Four members of the same Christian family have been found murdered, some of them beheaded. All four belonged to the Protestant Church of Salvation (Salvation Army). Their dismembered bodies were found yesterday, Central Sulawesi police reported today. The murder took place in the village of Lenowu, Lemban Tongoa district, Sigi.
This attack—which was preceded by a period of relative calm—has stirred up horrifying memories of similar brutalities in the same region beginning more than a decade ago.
On New Year’s Eve 2003, a bomb exploded at a Christian-area market in Palu, Central Sulawesi, killing eight people and injuring 56. That May, another bombing in the predominantly Christian village of Tentena, Sulawesi left 22 dead and at least 74 injured.
Months later, the Associated Press reported the beheadings of three Christian teenagers in October. Six men attacked four girls—Theresia Morangke, 15, Alfita Poliwo, 17, Yarni Sambue, 15, and Noviana Malewa, 15—early in the morning as they walked to a Christian school in the Poso district. The first three girls were beheaded; Noviana Malewa received serious injuries to her face and neck but survived the attack.
The murdered girls’ heads were wrapped in black plastic bags. One was found on the steps of a Kasiguncu village church. The other two were left at a nearby police station. One of the bags contained a note, some of which read, “We will murder 100 more Christian teenagers and their heads will be presented as presents.”
In 2006, three Indonesian Catholics were executed by firing squad in Palu, Sulawesi having been found guilty of incitement to murder during rioting. At the time, Amnesty International responded, “Such murders approved by the State are even more unacceptable when there are, as in this case, serious doubts about the fairness of the trials.”
Indonesia’s population is 90 percent Muslim. But in recent years there have been largely successful efforts by Indonesia’s government to enforce religious freedom. Other attacks have happened in various Indonesian cities over the years, but the region of Sulawesi has been a particular hotspot of Islamist terror.
Sadly, this recent attack on Christians has renewed countrywide concerns. Central Sulawesi police have affirmed finding the four victims’ dismembered bodies, but so far the identity of the killers remains in question.
According to BBC, “The Salvation Army confirmed the killing of its members in a ‘savage attack’ in a statement last week. Our hearts go out to our people who have been victims of evil, and to the families of those whose faith have caused such harm.”
In a report from Reuters,
Indonesian President Joko Widodo condemned the brutal murder by suspected Islamist militants as “beyond the limits of humanity,” as the military chief prepared to deploy special forces to join the hunt for the killers. In a video address, the president said the attack on Friday in a region riven by bloody, sectarian conflict in the past was designed to drive a wedge among the population in the world’s biggest majority-Muslim nation.” That gross act had the purpose of provoking and terrorizing the people. They wanted to destroy the unity and brotherhood of our people,” he said. “We need to stay united in the fight against terrorism.”
I spoke to my friend and colleague Paul Marshall, a Senior Fellow in Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute and a scholar who focuses on Indonesia. He has spent much time there, over many decades. I asked him about these recent concerns regarding religious freedom, and the situation specifically in Sulawesi. He explained,
The dominant forms of Islam in Indonesia continue to be moderate and tolerant. But there are threats from more radical groups. Only one of Indonesia’s 34 provinces (states), Aceh, is governed by Sharia law but some other counties and villages are restrictive according to Islamic standards.
In Indonesia, there are also outright terrorist groups, some affiliated with ISIS, that have carried out sporadic violent attacks throughout the country, although they tend to be scattered and weak. Perhaps more ominous is the return from Saudi Arabia on November 10 of Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, the founder of the Islamic Defenders Front, a radical militia. His reappearance has now emboldened more radical elements.
According to current reports on the recent violence, the Indonesia government has indeed pulled in military special forces to supplement police anti-terrorism units in the hunt for the Sulawesi terrorists, who are believed to be hiding in a remote area. Some locals have claimed to have seen and recognized the killers.
Thus far, however, there have been no arrests.