Friday, December 12, 2008

Maluku, Eastern Indonesia: "blasphemy" triggers pogrom

Date: Friday 12 December 2008
Subj: Maluku, Eastern Indonesia: "blasphemy" triggers pogrom
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty News & Analysis
From: WEA RLC Principal Researcher and Writer, Elizabeth Kendal

On Tuesday 9 December, Muslims rioted in response to rumours that Welhelmina Holle, a Christian teacher at SD Masohi elementary school, had insulted Islam in a comment he made while tutoring a sixth grade student. Masohi is about 120km east of Ambon on Seram island in the eastern Indonesia province of Central Maluku.

According to the Jakarta Post, the student reported the offence to his parents and news of the alleged blasphemy spread through the Muslim community. The local chapter of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) lodged a complaint with the police and by 8:30am some 500 Muslims were demonstrating outside the Central Maluku Education Agency in Masohi. After an hour there, they moved on to the Central Maluku Police headquarters some 500m away, where they sought to meet with Police Chief Adj. Sr. Comr. Eko Widodo to demand that the teacher be dismissed and made to face the law. After learning that Police Chief Eko Widodo was away in Ambon, the protesters dispersed. However after one group clashed with police, other Muslims started throwing rocks and rioting quickly spread.

Two churches, a health clinic and some 67 homes were torched. Four public transport vehicles and a motorcycle inside a bus terminal were also burnt. At least six people sustained injuries requiring hospitalisation and two of these are in a serious condition.

Eventually some 400 extra riot police and soldiers were brought in and peace was restored. Maluku Provincial Police spokesman Adj. Sr. Comr. J. Huwae told the Jakarta Post that "a large part of the community sought refuge at the barracks of the 731st Kabaressy infantry battalion". (Link 1)

Antara News reports that police are seeking witnesses who can testify concerning the incident. The accused teacher is in police custody and, according to Central Maluku Regional Secretary N Sukur, if he is found guilty he will be given an administrative sanction. (Link 2)


Maluku, which was wracked with sectarian violence and Islamic jihad from 1999 to 2001, has been relatively peaceful since the "Moluccas Agreement of Malino" peace deal was signed in February 2002.

The worst violence in Maluku was perpetrated by outsiders, such as the Java-based Laskar Jihad and other jihadists -- many of them foreigners -- who travelled to Maluku to "defend" Islam. With the expulsion of militants, local Muslims and Christians have been able to reconcile and rebuild their communities, many which are still mixed.

Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group believes that as long as Java-based Islamic militants stay out of the Maluku region, it is likely the area will stay peaceful. "'If it stays local, we're probably okay,' Jones said. 'And, one of the interesting things is that a lot of the people there specifically referred to the earlier conflict and not wanting to see it get out of hand. It's a case of whether or not some of these guys in Java take it as a green light to come in and scope things out. I think it'll probably be okay.'" (Link 3)

But this rioting is very concerning. Is violent, anti-Christian, Islamic intolerance that close to the surface? Has Islamic radicalisation reached a critical tipping point? Is the peace only a facade subject to hair-trigger fragility?


Article 156 (a) of the Indonesian Criminal Code establishes a minimum sentence of five years in prison for anyone found guilty of "expressing feelings of hostility, hatred or contempt against ethnic groups or religions".

According to Mohamad Mova Al 'Afghani, founder of the Centre for Law Information, this article was taken from Presidential Decree No. 1/PNPS/1965 on the Prevention of Blasphemy and Abuse of Religions. "The decree provides the State with a power to judge whether a certain belief is heretic or blasphemous and to imprison those convicted of the charges -- about the same authority awarded to the Inquisition which has been abolished by the Roman Catholic Church.

"The decree, enacted by Sukarno and formalised into law by Soeharto, is as a tool of power management. Politicians during those times felt the need to control religious leaders and subordinate them within their power structure." According to Mohamad Mova Al 'Afghani reasoning, the law violates the Indonesian constitution. (Link 4)

On Thursday 12 December, The Jakarta Post reported: "The Central Maluku Police have named two people, Welhemina Holle and Asmara Wasahua, as suspects for sparking the riot.

"Welhemina is being charged under Article 156 of the Criminal Code on blasphemy, which carries a maximum of 15 years' imprisonment.

"Asmara, who led a rally Tuesday that turned into a riot, is being charged under Articles 160 and 161 of the same law on encouraging criminal behaviour.

"Asmara, chairman of the Central Maluku Muslims Communication Forum, was caught on film allegedly provoking ralliers." (Link 5)

So Christian elementary school teacher Welhelmina Holle will be charged with blasphemy, and if Indonesia's Islamic fundamentalists have their way, he will be convicted and given far more than an "administrative sanction". And this would set a frightening precedent.

This is most certainly a case to watch.

By Elizabeth Kendal


1) Church, homes burned in Masohi blasphemy riot
M. Azis Tunny, The Jakarta Post, Ambon, 10 Dec 2008

2) Masohi tense, two injured. 9 Dec 2008

3) Indonesia Sends Troops to Quell Sectarian Violence in Maluku Islands
By Nancy-Amelia Collins, Jakarta, 10 December 2008

4) Ruling against blasphemy
Opinion and Editorial -- 3 Dec 2007
Mohamad Mova Al 'Afghani, Jakarta

5) Masohi in recovery, two named suspects
M. Azis Tunny, The Jakarta Post, Masohi, 11 Dec 2008