A Religious Conflict Tamed ; A Bombing Monday near a Church Is the Latest in a String of Attacks in Sulawesi

Article excerpt

Despite a flurry of warnings about possible violence over the holidays, residents in this capital of Central Sulawesi Province, thought the bomb blast that ripped through a nearby pork-selling market on New Year's Eve was an earthquake.

They were convinced, like so many others in the region, that the communal tensions that erupted into deadly clashes between Muslims and Christians five years ago were a thing of the past. Even after finding out it was a bomb, they condemned it as simply the work of a small group of "terrorists."

"Christian and Muslim people used to be very easily provoked," says a local Christian, Leo Parengkuan, as he sits drinking coffee on his porch with a Muslim friend. "Now they're not, because the people know that the violence is not because of religion, but because of politics, economics, and other things."

This refusal to be provoked by a recent string of sensational attacks - including the beheading of three girls walking to a Christian school in October and an ineffectual bomb blast near a church Monday - marks strong popular support for a 2001 peace accord designed to end several years of large-scale Christian-Muslim clashes.

A deeper understanding of the unrest has sprung out of a general conflict fatigue, with more people seeing past the seeming religious nature of the ongoing attacks. Observers credit the careful work by community and religious leaders, nongovernmental organizations, and even the once-fiery local media with promoting that understanding.

Top religious leaders from both sides held public meetings to talk about the need to end the conflict, and quickly and jointly condemned further violence. NGO workers went to villages teaching people to look more critically at the conflict, and trained local youth "peace agents" to do the same. Comic books were developed for children in nearby Poso with stories involving Muslim and Christian characters resolving problems through tolerance.

"Muslims and Christians would really open their minds when they saw this," says Iskandar Lamuka, director of the Institute for Empowering Civil Society (LPMS) in Poso.

Tasrief Siara, a journalist for independent Nebula radio in Palu, worked with other reporters and photographers to cover these peace- building efforts and promoted "peace journalism" in the area after seeing the way the local coverage of the conflict stoked tensions.

"We began reporting not only on how many victims there were, how bad the mutilation was, ... but the impact of the violence on the people," Siara says, "how many children were losing their fathers and mothers, and how many widows were losing their husbands - the mental impact, not just the physical."

The impact of such efforts is being felt even in the district of Poso - the heart of the conflict in Sulawesi that left more than 1,000 dead - where burned and destroyed houses and religious buildings are easier to find than sectarian anger. …