Sat, 13 Mar 1999

Habibie silent on calls for visit to Ambon

JAKARTA (JP): President B.J. Habibie thanked Maluku leaders on Friday for their advice on how to resolve violence between Muslims and Christians in the province, but kept silent over growing calls that he visit Ambon.

In a meeting with members of the Maluku legislative council, the President promised to take all necessary measures to restore peace and order in the province.

The speaker of the council, Abdul Fatah Syah Doa, said after meeting with Habibie at Merdeka Palace the council members did not invite the President to visit the province.

"As this country's President, he should go to any place which needs his presence," Abdul said. "Only foreigners need an invitation."

Meanwhile, groups of Muslims here and across the country and the Jakarta-based Indonesian Communion of Churches expressed sadness and outrage over the Ambon tragedy.

In a statement signed by chairman Sularso Sopater and secretary-general J.M. Pattiasina, the communion denied the unrest in Maluku was ethnic cleansing as a Muslim leader had alleged.

Abdullah Soulissa, who is the head of Ambon's Al Fatah Mosque Foundation, told a media briefing organized by the Crescent Star Party here that the riots in Maluku constituted an ethnic cleansing of Muslims.

He charged published death tolls were inaccurate and the number killed ran into the thousands. "Thousands have died, not hundreds. We don't know the exact number or the breakdown between Christians and Muslims."

"This is ethnic cleansing. It appears the Muslims are the ones who are being forced out."

"It will take two generations to restore and heal relations between Muslims and Christians. What do you do when you see someone's eyes being gorged out, their ears cut off and their throats slashed?"

Christian groups have reported similar atrocities committed by Muslims. But the communion said the claims of ethnic cleansing were an attempt to sow fresh hatred.

"We firmly reject efforts to portray Ambon's riots as the ethnic cleansing of a particular religious group."

Pattiasina said the first outbreak of violence in January planted such deep hatred people now were killing each other senselessly. "People don't know why they are killing one another... they just attack (one another). You cannot call it ethnic cleansing."

Muslims comprise about 40 percent of Ambon's population of some 400,000. Christians make up the remaining 60 percent. Around 50,000 Muslims, however, have fled the province and returned to their hometowns, mainly in South and Southeast Sulawesi.

Asked whether he hated Christians for what has happened, Soulissa said, "No. I am very sad. I used to be so close with them and I know their religion so well."

He illustrated his point by reciting Bible verses.

Also on Friday, around 50 youths from the Young Generation of the Batak Muslim Community rallied at the office of the National Commission on Human Rights in Jakarta, urging the commission to help restore peace in Maluku.

In the Central Java capital of Semarang, a group of 300 protesting students and youths warned members of the Armed Forces to remain impartial in their handling of the unrest in Maluku.

The Muslim students also said they would never commit violence against Christians.

Similar demonstration took place in the Central Java town of Surakarta, where Muslim students demanded that Armed Forces Commander Gen. Wiranto resign.

Students also protested the Ambon tragedy in Kendari, Southeast Sulawesi. Police fired warning shots to disperse the students, saying they lacked a permit to demonstrate.

No injuries were reported.

In Yogyakarta, around 5,000 Muslim students held a prayer for the dead in Ambon. The event was organized by the United Development Party, the Crescent Star Party and the Justice Party.

In Purwokerto, Central Java, some 1,000 Muslims marched through the town calling for end to the violence in Ambon. (prb/45/44/aan/har)