Indonesian Muslim mob attacks priest, burns three churches
By Benjamin Mann
A statue broken by the mob at Sts. Peter and Paul church
A statue broken by the mob at Sts. Peter and Paul church

.- An estimated 1,500 Indonesian Muslims destroyed three churches before attacking an orphanage and hospital in Central Java on Feb. 8. The mob was protesting a court's decision not to sentence a Christian man to death for defaming Islam.

Antonius Bawengan, 58, received a five-year prison sentence – the maximum penalty allowed by law – under the “blasphemy law” that has been invoked to silence critics of Islam. However, the crowd  assembled at his trial believed the sentence was too lenient, and demanded his death. They assaulted a group of police officers that reportedly numbered around 1,000 before moving against the churches.

The crowd first attacked the Catholic Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, in an assault that seriously wounded a missionary priest of the Holy Family congregation. The missionary, identified only as Fr. Saldanha, was beaten by the mob as he attempted to defend the tabernacle containing the Eucharist against desecration.

The crowd later set fire to two Protestant churches, Bethel Church and Pantekosta Church, before terrorizing a Catholic orphanage and a hospital run by the Sisters of Providence.

Archbishop Johannes M.T. Pukasumarta of Semarang, the Secretary of the Indonesian Bishops' Conference, told Fides news agency that he believed the outbreak of violence seemed to have been “planned and orchestrated” by extremist groups elsewhere in the country, as a response to the Bawengan case. 

“We are shocked by this event,” said Archbishop Pujasumarta. “The town of Temanggung is normally a quiet place. The extremists have come from outside.”

He urged Christians to work for reconciliation and forgiveness to the greatest possible extent, rather than retaliating. “Violence is never a good solution,” the archbishop observed, calling on “everyone, Muslims and Christians, to address issues with a sense of civility and in a spirit of fraternity.”

“I invite the Catholic faithful and all Christians not to react to the violence. We want to be a sign of peace to all.”

Nevertheless, the archbishop admitted to Vatican Radio that he felt profoundly “disappointed” by the mounting intolerance of a “group of fanatics” in his country.

Two days before the church attacks, a mob of Muslim extremists in West Java attacked and killed three members of a small Islamic sect, the Ahmadiyah. Video footage of the attack showed attackers stoning their victims to death, then beating the corpses as police officers looked on.

Leonard Leo, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, described the mob's killing of the Ahmadiyah followers as “just more deadly evidence that blasphemy laws are the cause of sectarian violence.” 

Domestic and international observers have also noted the negligence of police in both of the recent attacks. Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, called for a “a full investigation into why the police absolutely failed to prevent this mob from going on a violent rampage” against the Ahmadiyah in West Java.

Fr. Ignazio Ismartono, a Jesuit priest who oversees inter-religious dialogue for the Indonesian Bishops' Conference, observed to Fides that “the violence in Temanggung was in preparation for days” before the church burnings and other anti-Christian violence actually occurred.

During those preceding days, he said, “the police did nothing to prevent public disorder.”

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