A religious conflict tamed

A bombing Monday near a church is the latest in a string of attacks in Sulawesi.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Despite a flurry of warnings about possible violence over the holidays, residents in this capital of Central Sulawesi Province, thought the bomb blast that ripped through a nearby pork-selling market on New Year's Eve was an earthquake.

They were convinced, like so many others in the region, that the communal tensions that erupted into deadly clashes between Muslims and Christians five years ago were a thing of the past. Even after finding out it was a bomb, they condemned it as simply the work of a small group of "terrorists."

"Christian and Muslim people used to be very easily provoked," says a local Christian, Leo Parengkuan, as he sits drinking coffee on his porch with a Muslim friend. "Now they're not, because the people know that the violence is not because of religion, but because of politics, economics, and other things."

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This refusal to be provoked by a recent string of sensational attacks - including the beheading of three girls walking to a Christian school in October and an ineffectual bomb blast near a church Monday - marks strong popular support for a 2001 peace accord designed to end several years of large-scale Christian-Muslim clashes.

A deeper understanding of the unrest has sprung out of a general conflict fatigue, with more people seeing past the seeming religious nature of the ongoing attacks. Observers credit the careful work by community and religious leaders, nongovernmental organizations, and even the once-fiery local media with promoting that understanding.

Top religious leaders from both sides held public meetings to talk about the need to end the conflict, and quickly and jointly condemned further violence. NGO workers went to villages teaching people to look more critically at the conflict, and trained local youth "peace agents" to do the same. Comic books were developed for children in nearby Poso with stories involving Muslim and Christian characters resolving problems through tolerance.

"Muslims and Christians would really open their minds when they saw this," says Iskandar Lamuka, director of the Institute for Empowering Civil Society (LPMS) in Poso.

Tasrief Siara, a journalist for independent Nebula radio in Palu, worked with other reporters and photographers to cover these peace-building efforts and promoted "peace journalism" in the area after seeing the way the local coverage of the conflict stoked tensions.

"We began reporting not only on how many victims there were, how bad the mutilation was, ... but the impact of the violence on the people," Siara says, "how many children were losing their fathers and mothers, and how many widows were losing their husbands - the mental impact, not just the physical."

The impact of such efforts is being felt even in the district of Poso - the heart of the conflict in Sulawesi that left more than 1,000 dead - where burned and destroyed houses and religious buildings are easier to find than sectarian anger.

"I was very sad to see my house burned down and was angry at the time, but now - no," says Hauglim Peuggele, a Poso resident who stood in front of a burned down church. "I've come back to this place to buy a house and reconcile with Muslim people in Poso."

But while the combined efforts seem to have born fruit in stemming a communal backlash along religious lines, continuing incidents of "mysterious" attacks show the difficulty of stamping out such violence completely.

Most of the attacks since the accord have appeared to target Christians, and security forces and terror experts have pointed to outside Islamic militant groups that came to the island during the height of the conflict.

The International Crisis Group has warned that outside jihadist groups continue to exploit the conflict in Poso and stressed the need to reintegrate "leftover mujahideen."

"When outsiders look to enter a place like Poso, it's leftover mujahideen who provide them with a way into the area and local contacts to recruit new people," says David McRae, an ICG analyst.

For many of these ex-combatants, fighting in the name of Islam remains one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives, and may prompt them to continue even without a formal organization.

"It's difficult to forget the time I was a combatant," says Abang Syamsuri, a former mujahideen who fought during both the conflicts in Sulawesi and Maluku. "I stopped fighting in 2001, but had a discussion with myself until 2005. I would think, 'Should I be a combatant or live a normal life in Poso?' "

Rights groups have long accused security forces of involvement in continuing conflicts for economic or political reasons. The failure to bring to justice those behind the violence in Poso has only fueled local suspicions of involvement by officials, military, or local businessmen.

The government responded last week to mounting calls for an independent fact-finding team by pledging to send over 1,000 more police officers to Central Sulawesi to work with over 5,000 security personnel already in the area.

"In Poso, the government doesn't need to send more troops, police, or intelligence," says Rev. Rinaldy Damanik, chairman of the Synod of Churches of Central Sulawesi. "They need to give more space to the people to make independent fact collection."

NGO workers say the lack of answers behind the recent and past attacks has prevented resolving land disputes that would allow displaced people to return home and heal.

"We lived next to the Christian people for so long and we were all friends, so I really believed that they would not attack," says Siara, a Muslim woman who fled her village in rural Poso and has never returned. "I'm not angry at all Christians, but I am still angry at the people who burned my house and killed my husband. I don't know why they did it."

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