Religious harmony strained in Ambon

Legacy of sectarian bloodshed tests Indonesian motto of “unity in diversity”.

The bloody sectarian conflict in Maluku first erupted in 1999 [EPA]

The chaos surrounding the downfall of former president Suharto in 1998 sparked outbreaks of sectarian violence across Indonesia.


Ten years on the country is enjoying relative religious harmony, but frictions remain and a recent report from the International Crisis Group warned that communal tensions represent the biggest threat to peace in Indonesia.


Al Jazeera’s Step Vaessen reports from the eastern Indonesian province of Maluku on one region’s efforts to rebuild.

In depth

Ten years after Suharto’s rule

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Wounds barely healed, there is grief again in the remote Indonesian province of Maluku.  

The wife and 6-year-old granddaughter of Jance Patiasina could not escape when they came under attack by a gang from a nearby village.  

“My wife ran out of the house holding our granddaughter in her arms,” he recalls. “They we both butchered to death with knives cutting off parts of their heads.”


Three churches and more than 60 houses were burned down.


The attack was triggered by a dispute over land ownership between neighbouring Christian and Muslim villagers. But in Maluku, religious differences can quickly turn minor disputes into something far more brutal.


The attack has brought back painful memories of the bloody sectarian conflict that first rocked Maluku nine years ago, shortly after the downfall of former president Suharto.


For centuries Muslim and Christian communities had lived peacefully side-by-side in what were once known as the Spice Islands.


Jance Patiasina lost his wife and
granddaughter to attackers

But in 1999 a minor traffic accident in the provincial capital, Ambon, triggered bloody clashes that quickly escalated and spread across the province, leaving thousands dead and forcing many to flee for their lives.


Resentment over migrants from other islands taking over businesses and social jealousy between Christians and Muslims were the main reasons.



But an unpublished investigation report obtained by Al Jazeera says the Indonesian military played an important role in stirring up the violence.


Shortly after Suharto’s fall, a power play among Indonesia’s political elite created violence in many parts of the country.


The bloodshed in Ambon was one of the worst tragedies in Indonesia’s modern history.


The clashes were a stark illustration of the fragility of the Indonesian nation.


While Indonesia has a Muslim majority of nearly 90 per cent, Maluku, like many other parts of eastern Indonesia, has a significant Christian population.


Stretching across 13,000 islands, Indonesia is one of the most diverse countries in the world, encompassing more 300 ethnic groups who speak 365 different languages.


While the national motto is “unity in diversity”, when clashes do break out that unity can be tested to its limits.


In 2003, after four years of clashes and an estimated 10,000 deaths, a peace deal finally brought an uneasy end to the bloodshed in Maluku.


Now Muslims and Christians mix once again on the streets of Maluku and in busy markets across the province.


The city of Ambon – at one time a battleground for Muslim and Christian gangs – has been rebuilt. Bullet holes in the walls bear silent witnesses to a traumatic past.


Fragile peace


A joint Christian-Muslim football team is part
of efforts to rebuild communal ties

Peace may have returned, but the scars of the conflict are still fresh.


In an effort to prevent the conflict from starting again, humanitarian organisations have introduced what they call an early warning system – hoping to prevent minor disputes escalating once again into something far bigger and bloodier.


“Peace is still fragile, our wounds are not cured yet,” says Ikhsan Tualeka, a local social worker.


“We have to watch out for early signs of fresh resentment to prevent violence from happening again.”


To help break down boundaries a special team of football players has been formed.


Nine Muslims and nine Christians play together in what team member Jeffrey Nashir says is an example to the rest of the country that religious harmony is possible.


“We want to become an example for the rest of Indonesia that we can live in peace together, Muslims and Christians, like we always have,” he says.


So far the attack on Jance Patiasina’s village has proved to be an isolated incident and the peace process, while strained, remains intact.


But nobody in the village understands why more was not done to prevent Muslims and Christians from attacking each other again.


And Patiasina himself says will need more time before he can face his Muslim neighbours again.


“I thought those attackers were my friends,” he says. “I don’t understand why they did this to my wife and granddaughter.”

Source : Al Jazeera

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