Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - As Christmas approaches, Christians in Indonesia's Sulawesi province are worried that despite an influx of troops and police, the deteriorating security situation of the last two months may worsen.
Christian campaigners working in the area say many are too scared to live normal lives, afraid to tend, harvest or market their crops for fear of attack by Muslim extremists.
A spate of violence against Christians since October has raised fears of a return to two deadly years of fighting in 1999-2000, which left 1,000 dead in the province. The conflict ended with a Muslim-Christian peace accord in 2001.
Government officials have hinted that members of the al-Qaeda-linked terrorist group Jemaah Islamiah (JI) may be linked to the renewed attacks in Sulawesi, which lies about 1,600 kilometers northeast of Jakarta.
The trouble began with a couple of apparently isolated incidents - a bomb was discovered in a church shortly before a Sunday morning service in late September, and a Christian convert from Islam was gunned down by two men on a motorcycle several days later.
When the situation deteriorated sharply, it happened over a weekend when most outside attention was fixed on another Indonesian island 1,000 kilometers to the south-west, Bali.
The weekend of Oct.12 was the first anniversary of the deadly bombing of nightclubs on Bali, carried out by JI.
Even as memorial services were being held on Bali and elsewhere for the 202 victims, in Sulawesi 13 Christians were killed in attacks by groups of masked men, armed with guns and machetes. Almost 40 homes were torched, a church was gutted, and 200 people were left homeless.
Since then, a number of other attacks have occurred, according to reports by police and campaign organizations like International Christian Concern and International Friends of Compassion.
Last month, the treasurer of a church was bludgeoned to death in his car and his young nephew was almost decapitated by a fatal blow with a machete or knife. The same day, another Christian was pulled off his motorcycle and beaten to death by a Muslim mob.
Gunmen on a motorcycle fired into a church on Nov. 29, killing two Christians in front of their families. On the same evening, armed men raided a mostly Christian village and killed two Hindus; most of the Christians were away, attending a prayer meeting.
Further shootings last Monday and Friday left other Christians injured. Several bombs have also exploded, including one in front of a church in the town of Poso.
According to the Barnabas Fund, a charity organization working among Christians living in Islamic countries, there is a concerted campaign in Poso to target Christians.
It said leaflets being circulated in mosques called on local Muslims to "join the waiting force with your finances, your soul and even your lives," adding, "we will carry out mass attacks to cause shock and kill Christian leaders."
The authorities sent in extra troops and policemen this week, and at least 22 people have been arrested in connection with the killings. Police also shot dead six suspects who resisted arrest.
Despite these signs that officials are taking the matter seriously, some Christians believe members of the armed forces are colluding with terrorists or manipulating events to justify a clampdown.
In some of the attacks, gunmen used weapons usually only available to soldiers.
The Barnabas Fund said terrorists were "well armed with the latest military equipment suggesting assistance from members of the Indonesian military."
Christians also suspected that local police heads were collaborating with militant insurgents, it said.
Similar concerns were raised during the last period of violence in Sulawesi, as well as in a concurrent Muslim-Christian conflict in another province, Maluku.
In both the Sulawesi and Maluku conflicts, Christians blamed an extremist Islamic group called Laskar Jihad for much of the bloodshed.
Laskar Jihad, which said its presence was necessary to protect Muslims from Christian militias, announced it was disbanding last year.
In recent days, Indonesian security minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said there has been evidence of "the involvement of foreign terrorist groups" in Poso.
He did not elaborate, but last month police officials said some senior members of JI were suspected to be hiding out in Poso.
They include a man named Dulmatin, whom police suspect was involved in both the Bali bombings and a bomb blast at the JW Marriott hotel in Jakarta last August.
National police chief General Da'i Bachtiar said in November that some Marriott bombing suspects under arrest confessed knowing those involved in the Poso killings the previous month.
Police have suggested that the JI members may have carried out the killings in October to destabilize Indonesia and stir up militants, according to a report on an Indonesian online news portal, Laksamana.
Report: Anti-Christian Jihad Once Training Ground for SE Asian Terrorists (Dec. 11, 2002)
Int'l Christian Groups Want Indonesian Jihad Fighters Expelled (May 03, 2002)
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