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Indonesia police guard churches

JAKARTA, Feb 9 – Indonesian police stood guard outside churches on Wednesday after a wave of religious hate crimes swept across the mainly Muslim country, shocking civil society and sparking international concern.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who has been criticised for failing to stem the violence, ordered the police and military to go "all-out" against extremists behind the unrest.

"Every person should be guaranteed protection and safety, whatever his faith, ethnicity, race, political affiliation or profession," the soft spoken ex-general said in a speech to provincial governors.

"The string of violence must be stopped. I have instructed all regional heads, police and military regional commands to launch all-out actions… to prevent these violent actions from happening."

Indonesia\’s image as a bastion of inter-faith harmony has been battered in recent months by violent Islamic extremism and marauding vigilante groups.

The wave of hate crimes targeting Christians and other minorities climaxed on Sunday when hundreds of enraged Muslims brutally murdered three followers of a heterodox Islamic sect in front of police, who did little to intervene.

The country was still in shock after a disturbing video of that lynch mob attack emerged when another crowd of Muslim hardliners rampaged through the streets of Temanggung, Central Java, on Tuesday.

This time police responded with tear gas but again failed to stop the mob, which set fire to two churches and vandalised a Catholic school as they called for the death of a Christian man who had been sentenced to jail for blaspheming Islam.

Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini described the incident as a "very serious demonstration of anti-Christian fanaticism".

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US Ambassador Scot Marciel said the United States "joins the vast majority of Indonesians in deploring the violence" against the Ahmadiyah sect, and noted "with concern" the church burnings in Central Java.

Human rights organisations have urged Yudhoyono to do more to tackle intolerance in the country of 240 million people, 80 percent of whom are Muslims, saying religious violence is on the rise.

Central Java provincial police spokesman Djihartono said almost 1,200 security personnel had been deployed in Temanggung in response to Tuesday\’s unrest.

"We have deployed 1,183 personnel including from the military, which we have mobilised in several important locations such as churches, prisons, the prosecutors\’ office and the commercial centre," he said.

Yudhoyono, who depends on the support of Islamic parties in his fragile rainbow coalition, has vowed to defend constitutionally enshrined rights to freedom of religion yet simultaneously gives Islamic vigilantes a free hand.

He has also refused to sack senior police for failing to deal with the vigilantes, some of whom enjoy close ties to the security forces.

Nor has he censured ministers who justify the violence or reviewed legislation which activists say facilitates discrimination, such as the 1965 blasphemy law or a 2008 decree restricting Ahmadiyah.

Local rights groups have demanded the resignation of Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali, who says the Ahmadiyah would be safe if they simply renounced Islam. Last year he called for the sect to be banned.

In other comments seen as typical of the government, Communications Minister Tifatul Sembiring posted a message on Twitter late Tuesday saying that while burning places of worship is wrong, so is "provoking … mass anger" with blasphemy.

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The Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace said in a report last month that there were 216 incidents of religious freedom violations in 2010, up from 200 in 2009.

Most targeted Christians and Ahmadiyah, including assaults, sealing of places of worship and the prohibition of religious activities.


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