Saturday January 27, 2001.

Terror attacks in the name of religion

By Lindsay Murdoch

Circumcision has been forced on hundreds of Christians, including children and pregnant women, in a campaign by extremists to spread Islam through the war-ravaged Maluku islands.

Victims have told the Herald of multiple cuttings with the same knives and razors that caused many to suffer infections.

In the biggest city in the islands, Ambon, church and other groups have gathered evidence that 3,928 villagers on at least six islands have been forced to convert to Islam under the threat of death, torture or destruction of their homes.

They believe that local Muslim clerics, possibly under duress from extremists, circumcised almost all the converts.

Moderate Muslim leaders have condemned the forced conversions and circumcisions, saying they are contrary to Islamic teachings.

The Muslim Governor of Maluku, Saleh Latuconsina, this week led an investigation team to the island of Kesui, 420 kilometres south-east of Ambon City, after receiving an official report in late December confirming villagers there converted to Islam against their will and were circumcised.

Several hundred former Christians on the island are expected to be taken by Indonesian navy ship to refugee camps on Tual, a nearby island. A group of 172 Christians from Kesui, who have already been evacuated to Ambon City, tell horrific stories about forced circumcisions by local Muslims who they say were pressured by Muslim zealots from two other islands, Geser and Gorong.

Kostantinus Idi, 22, told the Herald that he chanted prayers to convert to Islam as Muslims brandishing machetes threatened to kill him and his family. "I was scared. They could do anything to me if I did not do what they wanted," he said.

Idi said that after being given a Muslim cap, prayer mat and sarong and being told to give himself an Islamic name, he tried to avoid circumcision by running to a relative's house. Three Muslim men came to the house, where nine other Christian men were also hiding.

"I could not escape," he said. "One of them held up my foreskin between pieces of wood while another cut me with a razor ... the third man held my head back, ready to pour water down my throat if I screamed. "But I couldn't help but scream and he poured the water. I kept screaming aloud and vomited. I couldn't stand the pain."

Idi said one of the clerics urinated on his wound, saying it would stop infection.

"All of the men at the house were cut using the same razor," he said. "That night they circumcised about 60 men. I was bleeding all over and had nothing to cover my wound. I was told to take a bath but it kept bleeding until the next day. I could not imagine any greater pain. One of my friends got infected and was taken to hospital when we arrived in Ambon."

Christina Sagat, 32, said her mother, who is in her 70s, teenagers and children and her eight months pregnant niece were among people from her village on Kesui who were circumcised.

Sagat said that Muslim Ambonese women were not usually circumcised. "I don't understand these people ... they insisted on us being circumcised," she said.

The Rev Sammy Titaley, the head of the Protestant church in Maluku, said the circumcisions were considered worse than death in Ambonese culture.

"Going back centuries we have a tradition of death," he said. "Tradition had it that if you married, you had to bring a head on a stick to the bride's family to show that you were able to protect her," Titaley said. "But we have never before seen anything like forced circumcisions in these islands. This is especially terrible for the women. How can they do that? Even Muslim women are not circumcised like this ... it is forbidden in Islam.''

Moderate Muslim leaders in Ambon City have distanced themselves from the conversions and circumcisions. They deny any campaign to force Islam on Christians. Malik Selang, the executive secretary of the Maluku chapter of the Indonesian Muslim Board, denied Muslims were responsible.

"Kesui island was Muslim-dominated until Christian missionaries came to the area," he said. "The Christians and Muslims used to live in harmony there but some Christians from Ambon went there and created rumours ... they provoked both sides into conflict.

"Some Christians came to a mosque and said they wanted to convert to Islam ... we do not force anyone to become Muslim. It is not considered a good deed."

Selang said Islamic teaching prohibited the forced conversion of someone from another religion to Islam. "It is against the Koran and against the teachings of the Prophet."

Speaking in Ambon City, an Austrian-born Catholic priest, Joseph Haas, said that threats and attacks by Muslim fanatics last year forced to him to flee Bula, a once Christian village on Ceram, the so-called "mother" island of Maluku. But he said when he went back to his looted and badly damaged church in the village recently, local Muslims pleaded with him to stay.

"I had to tell them, look, I don't have any Christian worshippers here any more ... they have all fled," he said.

Haas said many of the Muslims were also victims, including the clerics. "From what I hear, they cannot refuse to do the circumcisions," he said. "They are sincere and believe deeply in their religion. But others behind them are forcing them."

Haas, who has worked in Indonesia for almost 40 years, said he could not think of a worse thing to happen to the villagers.

Church officials say that the eastern half of Ceram, the largest island in Maluku, is now entirely Islamic. Protestants and Catholics cannot enter villages there for fear of attack. The Board of Lawyers for Ambon Churches claims it has gathered information about the forced conversion of about 1,500 people on Buru, a remote island near Ceram where former president Soeharto sent political prisoners in the late 1960s. The board claims that 1,300 Christians have been forced to convert on Bacan, an island closer to Irian Jaya (West Papua).

But the board's co-ordinator, Sammy Waileruny, said lack of communications with these and other islands where forced conversions are believed to have taken place made it impossible to know how widespread the action had been.

The testimonies of the Kesui refugees who have reached Ambon City are the only ones taken so far. Maluku's police chief, Brigadier-General Firman Gani, told the Herald that he understood Christians on Kesui "were in some kind of condition in which they could not freely choose their religion". "The police will respond," he said. "We will investigate. We are part of the governor's team going there."

Governor Latuconsina, who refused to be interviewed by Herald, is understood to have been shocked when he read a report of events on Kesui dated December 19. The report, a copy of which has been obtained by the Herald, confirmed that Christians who had "surrendered because they could not stand it any more" had been circumcised after being brought to a mosque.

Cite as:
(File created 27 January 2001)

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