Easter in Indonesia: a time to be wary

Apr 6, 2021

Easter is different in Islam-dominated Indonesia.  High on the facade of the Catholic cathedral and other churches in Malang, East Java stand statues of a welcoming Jesus. Beneath his outstretched arms parishioners got the extra protection of six-wheeled armoured personnel carriers, soldiers and police ready to intimidate potential bombers.

The terror season opened on Palm Sunday in Makassar, the 13th century capital of South Sulawesi, the island directly above Java.  As parishioners at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral had finished Mass celebrating Jesus’ palm-decked arrival into Jerusalem, two martyrs in training arrived on a motorbike carrying heavy backpacks.

Their mission was to kill, and they were successful, shredding themselves in a detonation so fierce it took a day before discovering one was a woman. Twenty people in the yard were wounded. Among them the smart security guard who stopped the bike at the gate.

Three days later police shot dead a 25-year old woman who carried a gun into the national police headquarters in Jakarta. It’s unclear whether she used the weapon; no other casualties were reported.

AAP quoted National Police Chief General Listyo Sigit Prabowo saying the Makassar militants were linked to a clash in January when police shot dead two suspects and arrested 19.

He also coupled the bombers to the banned Jamaah Anshorut Daulah (Congregation of Islamic State), particularly active in the Southern Philippines. Although the one-time Spanish colony is 86 per cent Catholic, the islands close to Indonesia are mainly Muslim.

So far this century separatists in the Philippines’ Sulu Sea region have claimed responsibility for at least 40 major bombings killing 400 and wounding 1,500.  The ocean border with Indonesia is notoriously porous and a haven for pirates and gun-runners.

Before Jakarta started getting serious about terrorism it was assumed militancy was a matter for minorities.  It only frightened foreigners, dismissed as kafir (infidels), so unworthy of concern.

Blasts in Bali (2002), Jakarta’s JW Marriott Hotel a year later, and then the Australian Embassy appeared to reinforce that view. Yet 38 of the 202 deaths in the Kuta nightclub explosion were Indonesians, while of the dozen Marriott hotel fatalities only one was an outsider – a Dutchman.

The change in attitudes accelerated when the police counterterrorism unit Densus 88 was formed after the Bali blast.  It’s funded, equipped, and trained by the US Security Service and the Australian Federal Police.

Densus 88 has gained a formidable reputation, though it appears to prefer squeezing triggers to demanding surrenders.  Certainly it’s become the vengeful assassins’ target of choice, though unbelievers are still in their sights.  As the pandemic has largely driven Westerners out of the Republic, local Christians have become soft substitutes.

The national government has also been urging the populace to understand terrorism is everyone’s business.  It has heavily promoted Pancasila, the five principles underpinning the state (monotheism, justice, unity, democracy and social justice), to defuse notions only pious Muslims can be true Indonesians, and convince that pluralism is not a plot to fracture the Unitary State.

City administrators hang big banners at intersections urging harmony and featuring portraits of worthies in uniform offering assurances.  There are NGOs advocating tolerance and before the plague universities ran chatathons featuring men (almost always) of various faiths being nice to each other.

The UN Security Council says JAD was established in 2015 as an umbrella organization for ‘almost two dozen Indonesian extremist groups that pledged allegiance to then-ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’.  The Iraqi promoted a worldwide caliphate with himself as boss   He went out with a bang in 2019, apparently triggering explosives while being hunted by US forces in Syria.

In JAD’s first year operatives blasted a Jakarta shopping centre killing two and injuring 25. In May 2017 fanatics wearing suicide vests took the lives of three police officers in East Jakarta.  The next month a cop was shot dead in Medan, the capital of North Sumatra.

Twelve months later the haters hit three churches in the East Java capital Surabaya killing 13 and injuring 40.  On 10 October 2019 a man and woman allegedly linked to JAD knifed, but failed to kill, a senior politician on a low-key visit to a small town outside Jakarta.

Wiranto (one name only) is a divisive figure who commanded the army from February 1998 to October 1999.  This was during the nation’s turbulent transition to democracy from the 32-year authoritarian rule of General Soeharto.  Wiranto, 74, has recovered from the assault and returned to his job as Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs.

The pattern of attacks suggests small groups sporadically active across the archipelago but they’re not the brightest flashes in the firefights.  The cathedral security guard who stopped the suicide bombers was suspicious because the gauche killers either didn’t think of disguise or decided wearing Christian clothes might contaminate their beliefs.

Christians (the term means Protestants in Indonesia) and Catholics seldom attend church unless well dressed, men in suits, unveiled women in knee-length skirts and sober blouses.  Anyone clad casually around a church on Sunday would attract attention.  Another giveaway of the genuine is showoffs necklaced with crucifixes and carrying bookmarked Bibles.

Aware that other zealots might follow the JAD bombing, the Indonesian Council of Muslim Scholars, along with Joko Widodo, immediately denounced the outrage.  In a national broadcast the President said: ‘I strongly condemn this act of terrorism …I’ve ordered the police chief to thoroughly investigate the perpetrators’ networks and tear down the networks to their roots.’

Council deputy chairman Anwar Abbas said the attack was a ‘heinous act that violated the tenets of any religion.’  Indeed, but for fanatics of any faith moderation and tolerance are obscenities.

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