Indonesia's Christmas shrouded by terror

Fifteen years after deadly church attacks's Christians remain vulnerable
Indonesia's Christmas shrouded by terror

Christian worshipers attend Mass in Banda Aceh, in this 2013 file photo. Indonesian Christians are celebrating Christmas amid fears of attacks by Muslim extremists. (Photo by AFP)

For more than a decade now Christmas celebrations in Indonesia have been under tight security. As the holiday approaches in 2015, police and military begin to divide tasks as to who will provide security for which church.

Despite having accepted this as a normal activity — and it would certainly be suspicious if no police are seen in a church's vicinity — deep within the heart of every Christian, there is hope that this will end.

For the foreseeable future, the security measures will continue. The threat is always there, forcing authorities this year to deploy some 150,000 security personnel to provide a safe Christmas across the archipelago.

Indonesian Christmas services are prisoners of a violent past incident. On Christmas Eve 2000, dozens of churches were attacked simultaneously in scores of cities in Java, Sumatera, and Nusa Tenggara, killing dozens of people and injuring nearly a hundred others.

In Jakarta, five churches were attacked, including the Church of Our Lady of Assumption Cathedral, St. Joseph Catholic Church and several Protestant churches.

The bombings were part of series of attacks orchestrated by the al-Qaida-linked Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), according to intelligence reports.

Former Jemaah Islamiyah military leader, Hambali — recognized as Southeast Asia's Osama bin Laden — confessed to U.S. investigators while in Guantanamo Bay prison that he funded the Christmas Eve attacks. He also funded the October 2002 Bali nightclub bombing that killed 202 — and the 2003 JW Marriott Hotel attack in Jakarta that claimed 12 lives.


An Indonesian police officer from the anti-terror and bomb squad patrols inside Messiah Cathedral in Jakarta in this Dec. 24, 2012 file photo. Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim majority nation is beefing up security at churches this Christmas and New Year amid fears of attacks by Muslim extremists. (Photo by AFP)


JI out, IS in

After the 2005 killing of Azahari bin Husin — the terrorsit group's bomb expert — and the 2008 executions of leaders Imam Samudra, Amrozi Nurhasyim and Huda bin Abdul, as well as the death of Dulmatin in a 2010 police raid, threats began to phase out.

However, in December 2013 police chief Sutarman announced that there had been a new plot to stir chaos during Christmas celebrations. As the Islamic State group began to grow in Indonesia, Indonesian police and military doubled security at churches on Christmas Eve.

Even non-Muslims, particularly members of the youth wing of Nahdaltul Ulama, Indonesia's largest Islamic organization, responded immediately by protecting churches from possible attacks by radical groups.

Terrorism experts have warned the government that Islamic State jihadists are not bluffing when they issue threats. Security analysts say more than 100 trained jihadist have returned home from the Middle East to many parts of Indonesia.

Early this month, coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs Luhut Binsar Panjaitan unveiled an intelligence report detailing a planned attempt to create chaos during this year's Christmas celebrations. This was followed last week by a statement from Indonesian police chief Badrodin Haiti that said the anti-terror squad Densus 88 arrested nine terrors suspects, believed to be Islamic State jihadists.

In response, more than 150,000 security officers will provide protection for Christmas celebrations in more than 33.000 churches nationwide. Level one security alerts applies to 13 zones — Jakarta, North Sumatra, West Java, Central Java, Yogyakarta, East Java, Bali, East Nusa Tenggara, Central Sulawesi, North Sulawesi, Maluku, Papua and West Papua.

Apart from securing churches, police will also step-up security at other public facilities such as airports, seaports, train stations, shopping centers, and recreation areas.

Still in anticipation of Christmas, the Jakarta police and provincial administration recently cracked down on migrants hiding in apartments and boarding houses. In the past, terrorists used homes and apartments to create bombs. Anti-terror squads fear that a similar pattern will be used by IS groups before launching attacks.

Meanwhile, about 2,000 military personnel are being deployed over Christmas in Aceh's Singkil district, where Islamic law is strictly observed. In October, several Protestant and Catholics churches were burned by fundamentalists, forcing about 8,000 people to flee to neighboring North Sumatra province.

With these kind of threats — either from terrorists or fundamentalist groups — it is clear that terror will still haunt Christians during Christmas this year and years to come.

Will there be a time when there are no more threats or fears? Only God knows.

Siktus Harson is a reporter in's Indonesia bureau and is based in Jakarta.

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