12/09/2005, 00.00
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Church torched in North Sulawesi

by Benteng Reges
Unknown attackers set on fire a Protestant church in Manada last night. Alertness increases to prevent Christmas attacks. Muslim volunteers join Christians in protecting Christian places of worship. Catholics and Protestants join their voice to proclaim that the "birth of the Lord should enhance awareness throughout Indonesian society of the urgency in establishing fraternal relations among fellow Indonesians."

Manado (AsiaNews) – Police in Manado and the North Sulawesi anti-terrorism unit are looking for the people who torched Beth Eden Protestant Church, seriously damaging a section of the building. The attack has increased concerns about further violence in the days leading up to Christmas, and police, assisted by Muslim volunteers in some areas, have set up patrols to protect Christian places of worship.

In Manado, where the church was attacked, smoke from the burning building engulfed the private quarters of the Protestant clergyman and his family, on the first floor of the building. The only eyewitness, a ten-year boy, could not tell much to the police.

Stephen Liow, Beth Eden's pastor, said that in the last few months anonymous phone callers threatened to burn down his church.

Beyond the one case, the incident is significant because of the upcoming Christmas.

Concern is such that in Bali, the police has deployed 6,000 men to ensure security over the holiday period.

"We will do our best to counter any possible bomb attacks by terrorists," said local police spokesperson Superintendent AS Reniban.

Some 23 critical danger areas on this tourist resort island have been identified for special protection.

"Churches and other worship buildings have become our top priority to secure along with entertainment centres, shopping compounds," he explained.

In neighbouring East Java, religious paramilitary volunteers have joined the police. According to Dunan Ismail Isja, police chief in the East Java city of Malang, there are at least 200 volunteers from Muslim groups working with the police.

"We will search anyone coming into the Church, including Catholics and Christians," he said. Hundreds of members of the Barisan Serba Guna, a Muslim group popularly known as Banser, are providing security.

The Bishops' Conference of Indonesia (Konperensi Wali Gereja Indonesia or KWI) has expressed its concern over possible Christmas attacks. Catholics have been asked to take only what is strictly needed when they go to church to avoid causing suspicion among security personnel. The same warning was issued by the Synod of Christian Protestant Churches (Persekutuan Gereja-gereja Indonesia or PGI)

In a joint pastoral letter entitled 'Let us not be afraid (as God has always secures our existence)", the two Christian organisations agree that security has become of the most important problems facing Indonesia in the last years. But both the KWI and the PGI are hopeful that things will improve shortly.

"The birth of the Lord should enhance awareness throughout Indonesian society of the urgency in establishing fraternal relations among fellow Indonesians," the joint letter said.

The Banser group has responded to the appeal and stated that it, too, was hoping for a quick improvement in the situation.

However, Indonesia's National Intelligence Agency Chief Syamsir Siregar acknowledged at a meeting of police chiefs and Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu religious leaders that some Muslim radical groups were planning to carry out bomb attacks during Christmas celebrations. He urged Christians to face the threat with courage.

Rev Chrysta Budi Prasetyanto from the East Java Protestant Church (GKJW) said that Christmas "must be welcomed with greatest joy, not with fears."

According to the KWI's Executive Secretary General, Fr Alex Soesilo Widjojo SJ, Christian-Muslim co-operation is now needed to prevent Christmas threats.

Rev E. M. Pattinasarane, from the Inter-Churches Cooperation Forum in East Java, voiced the same concern. In his view, it is urgent Christians unite to ensure their own security.  Police is just an "additional resource".

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