Muslims guard Jakarta's Christians

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

As church congregations offer up Christmas prayers here this weekend, thousands of Muslims will help keep the peace, standing guard outside.

After warnings of terrorist attacks over Christmas, police stepped up security, deploying over 17,000 officers in Jakarta, two-thirds of the city's force. Joining them in protecting hundreds of churches are some 7,000 guards from 11 different Islam-linked organizations.

Police are hoping "Operation Candle," which will run from Dec. 24 to Jan. 3, will be a symbol of goodwill between Christianity and Islam, ending a year that has seen many tests of Indonesia's religious harmony. It's part of a bid by authorities to move beyond physical security to include an ideological campaign against violent strains of Islam.

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"Having Muslims and Christians work together for security, the authorities are hoping to show that pluralism is still strong," says Sri Yunanto, an Indonesian expert on radical Islamist groups.

Both Muslims leaders and police say they are trying to avoid a repeat of Christmas Eve five years ago, when 29 churches were bombed in an attack blamed on Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a group that has been linked to Al Qaeda.

"We want to show we respect Christianity," says Irwan Arsidi, secretary of the Islamic Defender's Front (FPI), a hard-line vigilante group. "Besides," he grumbled, "we don't want to get blamed for any explosions."

The Islamic Defenders are perhaps better known for shutting churches down than defending them. Mr. Arsidi adds that members would make sure they weren't seen to be "participating" in Christmas celebrations. Recently, the FPI was one of several hard-line groups to condemn suicide bombings, distancing themselves from JI.

The government has effected some of this peeling away of support for violence with a deft use of the terrorists' own propaganda. In an attempt to win over 18 prominent Muslim leaders, Vice President Jusuf Kalla showed them suicide messages on Nov. 17 in a video recorded by young men recruited by JI. The message, including quotations from the Koran, was recorded shortly before the Oct. 1 bomb attack in Bali.

Until the video was shown, many leaders were reluctant to admit the existence of JI, or of homegrown terrorism.

The tape then aired on national TV.

Soon afterwards Indonesia's two largest Muslim organizations, the Muhammadiyah and the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), which together claim 70 million members, pledged to spread the meaning of "true" or peaceful jihad in their schools.

As part of its efforts to combat radical ideology, the government also announced an initiative aimed at monitoring Islamic schools throughout the country. However, resistance from religious groups has forced Jakarta to back off from the idea, for now.

Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim nation, has long enjoyed a reputation for religious tolerance. Several events in 2005, however, chipped away at that image.

• In West Java, hard-line Islamist mobs closed down 40 unregistered churches.

• The powerful Islamic scholars' council accused the Islamic sect Ahmadiyah of heresy and issued edicts condemning pluralism and interfaith marriages.

• On the island of Sulawesi, three schoolgirls were beheaded by masked attackers in October, in what observers say was an attempt to reignite a four-year conflict between Christians and Muslims.

Din Syamsuddin, chairman of the 30-million strong Muhammadiyah, the world's second-largest Muslim organization, says that Operation Candle is a chance to help dispel fears of Islam.

On Wednesday, Mr. Syamsuddin invited thousands of Christians affected by forced closure of churches this year to say prayers at the organization's buildings. Syamsuddin called on communities near the closed churches to allow Christians to pray in their homes. He also called on Muhammadiyah youth groups to help guard churches across Indonesia.

The 40-million member NU has been a strong supporter of Indonesia's secular Constitution, which recognizes four religions alongside Islam, including Christianity. The group has been helping to guard churches since 1998, members say.

"We have a tradition of defending the Christians," says Wiro Sugiman, an NU member and security official.

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