Quiet vignettes in Indonesia

Sectarian violence in the Maluku islands rages, but reconciliation is also in the works.

During a year of sectarian violence, the city of Ambon in Indonesia's Maluku islands has become a checkerboard of hatreds. A Muslim who enters a Christian quarter will very likely meet death, and vice versa.

For centuries, followers of both religions existed amicably here, until a mixture of resentments, political changes, and possibly some external provocations turned the two sides against each other. Some 1,000 people have died in clashes in the region from Dec. 26 to Jan. 17, according to the military.

But a few days spent in Ambon shows that life is not all riots and standoffs. In the quiet times, people return to overlooking their differences. Reconciliation - though it isn't imminent and won't be easy - seems possible.

Side-by-side market

Just down the street from where the Muslims rallied, an informal interreligious market has started. With a military checkpoint close at hand, Muslims bring goods to sell to Christians.

Mostly the trade is in entertainment - satellite tuners, video disc machines, stereo equipment. Watching the tube is especially prized in a place where a 10 p.m. curfew puts a damper on nightlife.

Idris Kiyat, the imam of a nearby mosque, says that the solution to the religious strife in the Malukus "has to come from the grass roots."

The sidewalk market illustrates his point. Never mind that some of the trade is in black-market pornographic videos that would probably scandalize the imam. At least the two sides are getting together for something.

Refuge on a Naval base

The Indonesian Navy's Halong base is just 30 minutes by speedboat from one of Ambon's Christian docks. Nearly 6,000 refugees have found safety here.

Muslims and Christians live side by side and worship in the base's mosque and church. Muslim and Christian sailors and soldiers work together.

Why this coexistence, when outside the base there is such turmoil? "It's under military control," says 1st Lt. Gunawan.

Indeed, the base is a microcosm for one vision of a peaceful Indonesia - where an authoritarian government stifles disagreements through sheer power.

It's conceivable that the people of the Malukus are being sacrificed to bring about just this outcome. President Abdurrahman Wahid, a Muslim cleric devoted to interreligious harmony who last October became Indonesia's first democratically elected leader, this week blamed provocateurs for the country's separatist and sectarian unrest.

"I cannot divulge their names because we still have to [get] proof," he said. "Those Muslim militants, those generals who are not satisfied - [they] would like to rule forever." The theory is that dark forces are stirring up violence in the Malukus and elsewhere to justify a return to dictatorial rule.

Violence-free zone

Across Ambon bay from the city is a community that has famously avoided violence. In Wayame, the priest and imam chair a crisis committee that meets regularly to resolve troubles. Outsiders - possible provocateurs- are swiftly sent on their way.

Both religious leaders say the answer to the area's troubles is more religion, not less. In the old days, says the Muslim leader, who asks to be known as the Imam Wayame, Christians attended church, Muslims went to mosque, and everyone got along.

Now people are less observant. "It's a curse from God so we can go back to God's way," he says.

The Rev. John Sahalessy of the Pniel Protestant Church denigrates the behavior of Christians in Ambon, where the city's landmark Silo Church was burned last December, sparking a wave of reprisals that killed hundreds. "Silo had to be burned," Mr. Sahalessy declares, asserting that Christians were using it to store weapons and hide militants.

Muslims exhibit "wrong solidarity." If one's coreligionists are in trouble, he says, the first task is to pray. "Then consider giving food or medicine or some other aid. Don't go to fight."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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