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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

Fire in Situbondo

The worst religious riot in years


WHEN THE MOB GATHERING outside a courthouse in the East Java town of Situbondo on Oct. 10 reached 3,000, it exploded in rage. Five hours later, police finally quelled the violence. The toll: five people dead and 20 Christian churches destroyed. The rioters also set fire to the courthouse, schools, cinemas, amusement centers, offices, cars, even orphanages. The five who died were found in a burnt-out church; one was a crippled woman.

The violence began after a judge handed down what some believed to be a lenient sentence for a 23-year-old Muslim, Saleh, who had been convicted of insulting Islam, the religion of 90% of Indonesians. Saleh, an adherent to an unorthodox sect, had offended a local Muslim leader, denied that Muhammad was the prophet of God, and said it was not necessary to pray five times a day. He received a five-year jail term, the maximum penalty allowed. Some thought he should have been sentenced to death.

Why the mob attacked 20 churches is still unclear. Some say the rioters believed Christians had incited Saleh to insult Islam, others that Saleh had sought refuge in a church. Tension over a land-rights case may also have provoked passions. Whatever the cause, it was the worst anti-Christian violence in Indonesia in years. In September, Muslims torched a church in western Jakarta. Earlier this year, Christian groups in Surabaya were harassed.

Islamic leader Abdurrahman Wahid, influential head of the 30-million strong Nadhlatul Ulama group, apologized publicly; the NU has many followers in Situbondo, some of whom took part in the violence. Wahid had just returned from Rome, where he and other religious leaders had prayed for world peace, only to find his own congregation aflame.

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