The world has watched in distress for more than two years as outbreaks of deadly violence - often between Christians and Muslims - threaten the future of newly democratic Indonesia. An increasingly fragile government, though committed to pluralism and tolerance, has seemed incapable of curtailing the conflicts.
In response to reports from the Moluccan islands of hundreds of forced conversions or exterminations of Christians by a band of outside Muslim paramilitaries, private US-based organizations are now getting involved.
International Christian Concern (ICC) and Christian Aid have launched a campaign, in support of local pastors, to rescue more than 7,000 villagers under threat from Laskar Jihad. One rescue mission by boat has been carried out and 22 others are planned.
ICC and Christian Aid are raising $1.2 million to evacuate and resettle families and feed them for six months. Steven Snyder, president of ICC, was detained by security forces in late February during a mission to the area.
The Moluccan Christians "have asked, 'Why hasn't anyone helped us?' " Rev. Snyder said on his return. "It's our responsibility to answer their plea and rescue as many as we possibly can."
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom held hearings last month on the violence, which many say arises not directly from religion, but past government policies, economic tensions, and manipulations by the military and supporters of ousted President Suharto.
The situation is particularly tragic since Indonesia is known for its religious tolerance. Only a half-century old, the country formed its Constitution, based on a religious-freedom pact called Pancasila, joining islands that were predominantly Muslim with others predominantly Christian.
"This did not fundamentally begin as a religious war, and should not have been allowed to become one," says Paul Taylor, an anthropologist who lived in the Moluccas for several years. "Indonesians often referred to the Moluccas as a model for their nationwide pursuit of religious tolerance."
In villages where he lived in the 1970s, he adds, Muslims used to help Christians build their churches and Christians helped Muslims build their mosques.
Since January 1999, between 5,000 and 8,000 people have been killed there, and an estimated 500,000 people displaced from their homes.
Christians have also been guilty of acts of violence, says Robert Hefner, a professor of anthropology at Boston University. Christian militias are said to have massacred hundreds of Muslims, including 200 women and children, in December 1999. This helped spur the mobilization of Laskar Jihad. But interviews he held with jihad leaders also revealed that "a central aim is to drive [President] Abdurrahman Wahid from power."
Several testifiers described evidence that members of the Indonesian military are behind the violence, including a strategy to provoke religious conflict to undermine the government and halt reforms.
Indonesia's transmigration process - which over several decades resettled Muslims from overcrowded islands to islands that were heavily Christian - has also played a part. And the recent decentralization of government authority in the provinces has spurred power struggles between the groups. What at first was not religious violence, turned so.
"The good news is that even with these depressing scenarios, there seems to be a deep commitment among much of the public to ensuring that democratization goes forward," says Sidney Jones, of Human Rights Watch in Asia. Perhaps the best contribution outsiders can make, one testifier said, is to respond to the humanitarian crisis, but in a way that does not distinguish between faiths.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor