Tolikara was the scene for religious riots on July 17, 2015. (Antara Photo/Trisnadi)

Officials Fear Backlash After Papua Mosque Burning

JULY 21, 2015

Security across the country has been raised as provocative messages spread online in the aftermath of the burning down of a small mosque in Karubaga, in Papua’s Tolikara district last week.

Several firebrand clerics have even been calling on Muslims to wage jihad against Christians in Papua, and at least one church in Central Java has already received threats.

Meanwhile, conspiracy theorists speculated that the burning of the mosque, which occurred just as local Muslims were preparing to perform their Idul Fitri prayers on Friday, was the work of "intelligence agents."

The possible motives, the theorists suggested, varied from further destabilizing the restive province for the benefit of security rackets to fanning intolerance and spreading conflict elsewhere in the archipelago.

In 2001, a wave of sectarian conflicts across the country paved the way for the impeachment of president Abdurrahman Wahid, better known as Gus Dur.

The Jakarta Police and the Jakarta Military Command on Tuesday met with leaders of various Muslim organizations to try and prevent such provocative and speculative messages from spreading.

“We must examine the incident in Tolikara rationally and wisely, putting forward unity and tolerance,” military commander Maj. Gen. Agus Sutomo said.

Agus added that he believed various groups across the capital must work together with security officials “to monitor, communicate and proactively take preventive measures so people wouldn’t get provoked.”

'Isolated incident'

The chief of Jakarta Police, Insp. Gen. Tito Karnavian, who previously led the Papua Police, said the burning of the mosque was an isolated incident.

“Papuans are very moderate and tolerant in religious affairs. There has never been any sectarian conflict there. Many churches [in Papua] were also quick to condemn the incident,” he said.

Tito, a former chief of the National Police’s counterterrorism unit Densus 88, told the Muslim groups attending Tuesday’s meeting to stop using the incident to fan hatred and intolerance.

“This is a very sensitive issue. We hope [Muslim leaders] can calm their followers down and examine the Tolikara incident wisely. We don’t want people to take the wrong step based on a misunderstanding of what happened,” he continued.

“We will also monitor [activities of] radical groups that often commit acts of terrorism.”

Police chiefs in other provinces have taken similar measures, trying to convince local Muslim leaders of the need to spread messages of peace in the wake of the incident.

Dozens questioned

The deputy chief of the Papua Police, Brig. Gen. Rudolf Alberth Rodja, has said the mosque was burned by accident and that no Muslims were hurt.

“The mosque was not burned down [intentionally]. There was a riot and a few stores were set on fire and the mosque, which is located nearby, caught fire as a result,” he said.

“The mosque was also empty at the time. Local Muslims safely performed their Idul Fitri prayers on a field near a military compound. When the attack happened, officials immediately secured the area.”

Rudolf said there were flyers, purportedly from the Evangelical Church of Indonesia (GIDI), which barred Muslims from performing Idul Fitri prayers en masse because the holiday coincided with a national conference held by GIDI.

The church group has however denied issuing such flyers.

President Joko Widodo’s chief of staff, Luhut Panjaitan, has provided account of the incident, saying that several Christians were offended by the use of loudspeakers near their church.

Prior to Idul Fitri, which marks the end of Ramadan, Muslims traditionally celebrate by chanting prayers, an activity that often lasts all night and into the morning.

Rudolf said whatever the motive, police have recorded some individuals provoking a group of 200 strong, pelting stones and setting fires to shops owned Muslim migrants.

“Including a shop selling gasoline. This is what caused fire to rage and get out of control,” he said. “Police have questioned 32 witnesses ... No one has been arrested yet. As instructed by the president, we must act carefully to prevent [violence] from spreading.”

Papua Police spokesman Sr. Comr. Rudolf Patrige said 58 shops were destroyed in the flames, while 211 people were left homeless.

Tolikara Police chief Adj. Sr. Comr. Suroso said police were still investigating the origins of the provocative flyers.

“The GIDI's president never sanctioned such a restriction,” he said.

Regulations scrutinized 

Home Affairs Minister Tjahjo Kumolo said that his office was seeking clarification from district chief Usman Wanimbo about several discriminatory regulations in the province (perda).

“I personally have repealed 139 perda [across the country], particularly those that are against pluralism," he said.

Tjahjo was referring to a perda cited in a press release from GIDI president the Rev. Dorman Wandikmbo. In the statement, Dorman said several GIDI youths were merely reminding the Muslims that according to a perda all religious activities must take place indoors, without the use of loudspeakers.

The youths, Dorman claimed, were protesting peacefully before they were shot at by security officials. One of the 12 youths who were shot died.

The church had also sent a letter to Suroso, the Tolikara Police chief, two weeks before the incident reminding him of the perda.

Usman denied the existence of such regulation during a meeting with the minister in Jakarta on Tuesday but acknowledged that of another discriminatory regulation, which bars other Christian denominations (aside from GIDI) from establishing a church in Tolikara.

“Yes, there is such a regulation. It is the [local] people who forced us not to allow any other denomination from entering,” he said.

The regulation was passed by the local Regional House of Representatives in 2013, Usman explained.

The Home Ministry’s director general for politics and governance, Soedarmo, said the ministry has not endorsed the regulation, which is needed for the perda to enter into force.

“Exclusivity will create resistance from other religious groups. We want the [Tolikara] government to review the perda. Especially since the minister has not signed off on it,” he told Usman.


Neles Tebay, a Catholic priest and Papuan community leader, called the attack “unacceptable” and said it could not be justified by any religious person.

Neles, who also coordinates the Papuan Peace Network (JDP), said the attack has no place in Papuan culture.

“Our cultural traditions teach us that Papuans are not allowed to disturb places seen as sacred,” he said. “When you do disturb a holy place, according to Papuan beliefs, there will be consequences in the lives of those who interfered in that place.”

“As a Papuan, I ask for forgiveness for this event that violated the norms of our tradition [adat],” Neles said.

Calling for restraint, the priest also urged police to quickly get to the bottom of the case, finding not only those responsible for the attack, but also establishing what triggered it.

The freedom of religion in Indonesia has in recent years been under pressure from both hard-line groups and even government officials, with minority groups like Shiites, the Ahmadiyah sect and various Christian denominations usually bearing the brunt.

Nusron Wahid, general chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama’s youth wing GP Ansor, said that a lesson can be learned from the Tolikara incident for all of Indonesia, namely that a tyranny of the majority is not acceptable anywhere.

“There has to be empathy. In mainly Islamic areas, the Muslim majority cannot just do whatever it wants, and neither can the non-Muslims in their areas,” he said.