I first became aware of central Indonesia eleven years ago, when I bought a map in an airport shop in Cebu, in the middle of the Philippines. A portion of this 17,000-mile archipelago was taken up by a huge island shaped like a pinwheel: Sulawesi. In 1999, horrific stories about Christian persecution in that part of the world started to leak out. A radical Islamic group called Laskar Jihad was terrorizing Christians in a group of islands called the Moluccas, just east of Sulawesi. Christians who refused to convert to Islam were killed; those who did convert were then separated from their families, given Muslim names, and forcibly circumcised -- without anaesthetic, and with dirty instruments. Scissors were used on the adults. They were then told to wash in the sea to disinfect their wounds. The women underwent female genital circumcision.
Why, I wondered, weren't journalists reporting on this tragedy? It turns out that getting a journalist's visa to enter that part of the country is next to impossible. One has to first go to Jakarta to state the purpose of one's trip, and then wait for approval. But there are planes or ferryboats to these islands daily, so a truly dedicated reporter could slip in. One gets the impression that, when it's Christians being murdered or tortured, the international press isn't really interested. That's how Joanna Milosz -- a member of the London-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide who recently traveled around the Moluccas -- sees it: "The whole Moluccas conflict has been fraught with misinformation from the beginning," she says. "The Western press goes overboard in being sensitive to the Muslim community. They do not want to be Islamophobic, so they ignore the realities of the situation. What has been so astounding is how few other Indonesians know what the actual situation is. The Bacan-Seram islands are where people have faced forced conversions and circumcisions. Christians are subject to especially severe circumcisions. I've heard reports of them doing it to girls as young as 2."
I e-mailed a journalist in Jakarta who works for a respected international magazine, asking her about the refugee camps that ring the area. At least 5,000 people have died in the fighting between Muslims and Christians, and nearly half a million have been driven from their homes. Many of them are in refugee camps; the camp in Manado, a mainly Christian city on the northeastern tip of Sulawesi, alone numbers 50,000.
"I've been to many refugee camps in Manado and surrounding areas," she wrote me back. "The government does as little as they can. It's a diabolical situation that does not get much attention."
I kept on reading horror stories -- mostly from Christian mission organizations monitoring the area, as they seemed to be the only ones brave enough to venture into the region. One Washington, D.C.-based group, International Christian Concern, interviewed a woman with a horribly disfigured face who had been attacked in Duma, a Moluccan village on the island of Halmahera.
"When I saw the jihad warriors approaching," the woman told the interviewer, "I cried out, 'Lord help me.' Then a jihad warrior came up to me and said, 'I'll show you how God helps you,' and then placed the pistol in my mouth and pulled the trigger."
The same interviewer met a twelve-year-old boy named Noledy on the same island. The boy had seen his parents hacked with machetes, then buried alive by jihadists. He managed to escape into the jungles, where he wandered for about a week before encountering other Christian refugees. Indonesian Christians on other islands have made cloak-and-dagger missions to these islands by boat to rescue such people; to date, about 2,700 have benefited from the boat rescues. Another 6,000 still need help.
Why have journalists ignored a group that equals the Taliban in cruelty? Laskar Jihad even have their own website, where they blame "Christian priests" for carrying out mission activities against their Muslim brethren. Their propaganda tells of Muslims who have been attacked and tortured by Christians. The Islamist group is involved in importing warriors into various trouble spots around the Indonesian islands. They had already made Ambon, an island in the southern Moluccas, a living hell for Christians, and starting a few months ago, they aimed their sights farther north. Their goal: Sulawesi.
Sulawesi is 1,000 miles east of Jakarta, Indonesia's capital. As for the government sending in its own military to keep the peace, the Indonesian military is not known for its fairness and impartiality -- as the world saw in East Timor's fight for independence. The navy and air force are trustworthy, but the army -- which leans heavily to the side of the Muslims -- is fearsome to Christians.
Eighty-seven percent (174 million) of Indonesia's 201 million people are Muslim -- the largest Muslim population of any country in the world. The goal of Laskar Jihad and like-minded radicals is to make Islam the country's official religion, and to impose sharia law. It already exists in Ternate, a small island-city just off of Halmahera. Christian pastors unfortunate enough to be discovered in the area simply get beheaded.
Steven Snyder of International Christian Concern and Dr. David Harding, a Maryland physician, recently visited Sulawesi to examine the situation there. They came back nine days later with a horror story: 7,000 jihad warriors were amassing to attack Christians in central Sulawesi, specifically Tentena, a lakeside city of 63,000 -- about 28,000 of them refugees from around the island. Like the Israelites defending Jerusalem's walls during the time of the prophet Nehemiah, the men of the city were posted about city limits with whatever weapons they could scrounge up, while the women and children had gathered their belongings for a possible flight into the jungle. The 35 policemen in town had a total of three rifles.
The two men, plus an Australian translator who knows the island intimately, got through to Tentena with the help of an eight-man military escort. The worst part was the 70-mile drive from Poso, a larger city on the coast, south into Tentena. Along the way they saw burned-out Christian villages, and roadblocks with signs that read "jihad post." The men lounging by them carried AK-47s. "Our police escorts were petrified," Mr. Snyder says. "We stopped at one jihad post and offered them coffee if we could take photos. They didn't know what to make of us; all these white guys emerging from behind a car with tinted windows." Somehow they got through, only to discover legions of sick and homeless in Tentena.
"Dr. Harding saw a seven-month-old baby that looked about three weeks old. She had only been fed with sugar water," Mr. Snyder says. "The pharmacy there was pretty pathetic, too."
They stayed for several days, interviewing residents and police, who told them that a boatload of 1,000 Laskar Jihad had arrived on the island just before they came -- and that another was due the following week. The Indonesian Islamists have direct links to international Islamic extremists, including those in Afghanistan and in Osama bin Laden's network. Six Afghani and Pakistani "visitors" had been seen in the area when Harding and Snyder were there. Indonesian mujahedeen had fought in Afghanistan during the 1980s, and the jihad posts had bin Laden's picture on them. An Australian magazine, Tempo, reported in October that trainers from Bosnia as well as Afghanistan were working with Laskar Jihad.
In addition, Baroness Carolyn Cox, Deputy Speaker of the British House of Lords, who heads up Christian Solidarity Worldwide, met up with some Afghan jihadists when she visited Ambon two months ago.
"They weren't there for a picnic," she said. The head of Laskar Jihad, Jafar Umar Thalib, is said to be a disciple of bin Laden's.
Now back in the United States, Mr. Snyder is pressing for some response from the American government in the matter of Tentena's beleaguered Christians. Megawati Sukarnoputri was one of the first foreign leaders to visit the United States after the terrorist attacks, and she was rewarded with a $130 million aid package. An additional $10 million was given to her by President Bush for assisting refugees, particularly in the Moluccas. And, with congressional approval, another $10 million will go for police training.
But to what end? The police almost always take the side of the Muslim majority in these conflicts, and have apparently helped arm groups like Laskar Jihad. Furthermore, they have stood by while Russian arms shipments purchased through Philippine channels have arrived at various island depots.
Not all Indonesian Muslims embrace Laskar Jihad. In Tentena, 31 Muslim families live in peace with their neighbors. But Indonesia's radical Muslims elicit little more than a yawn from most quarters. At a reception for journalists, held in December at the vice president's mansion, I asked Dick Cheney if he was aware of the problem. No, he was not. "Forgive me for being cynical," my journalist contact in Jakarta wrote me, "but stories on Muslim radicals in Indonesia are a dime a dozen."
But the tortured and persecuted are not a dime a dozen. By mid-December, some government forces, ranging from 2,000-4,000 troops, had flooded the Poso-Tentena reason, making it impossible for Laskar Jihad to achieve their goal of domination of central Sulawesi by the end of Ramadan on Dec. 16. So Laskar Jihad will simply wait. They've been at this for several years now, and their supreme commander, Jafar Umar Thalib, remains at large. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of refugees are sick and homeless because evil will happen, as the saying goes, if good men are content to do nothing.
"We were able to board our plane and depart in safety," Mr. Snyder says, "but our hearts cried out for our dear brothers and sisters trapped in the district of Poso. Many are simple peasants, farmers, fishermen and villagers. They are defenseless, weaponless and confused. They know nothing of all the political, religious or financial manipulations going on. Their only hope is that God will intervene."
Julia Duin. "Christians in Indonesia: Allowing persecution to happen." "National Review" (January 2, 2002).
This article is reprinted with permission of "National Review."