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Muslims burn, ransack churches in Indonesia

Indonesia, Feb 8 – A Muslim mob burned churches and clashed with police in Indonesia on Tuesday as they demanded the death penalty for a Christian man convicted of blaspheming against Islam, police said.

Two days after a Muslim lynch mob killed three members of a minority Islamic sect, crowds of furious Muslims set two churches alight as they rampaged in anger over the prison sentence imposed on defendant Antonius Bawengan, 58.

A court in the Central Java town had earlier sentenced the man to five years in jail, the maximum allowable, for distributing leaflets insulting Islam.

But this only enraged the crowd, who said the sentence was too lenient, police said.

"Today was the climax of the trial… The mob shouted that he should receive the death sentence or be handed over to the public," Central Java province police spokesman Djihartono told AFP.

"There are two churches that have been burned. The windows were shattered and the roofs were charred… There is also another church that was damaged."

About 1,500 protesters took to the streets and threw stones at the police, who responded with tear gas and warning shots into the air. One police vehicle was set ablaze, Antara news agency reported.

They chanted "kill, kill" outside the court and "burn, burn" as they set upon the churches.

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"There were about 1,500 people who protested against 1,000 police members. The situation is calm now," Djihartono said.

The latest outbreak of religious violence in the world\’s most populous Muslim-majority country came as pressure mounted on the government to tackle religious extremism and demonstrate its oft-touted commitment to diversity.

Leading international human rights groups condemned Sunday\’s bloody onslaught on the Ahmadiyah Muslim sect in West Java and demanded an immediate investigation into why police failed to stop the lynch mob.

They joined the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, an autonomous board that advises the US government, in calling for a review of laws seen as persecuting minority faiths, such as the 1965 blasphemy law.

"Indonesia is a tolerant county that should be more intolerant of extremist groups," commission chair Leonard Leo said in Washington overnight in response to Sunday\’s violence.

"It\’s time the Indonesian government brings them to account for the violence and hatred they spread."

US President Barack Obama visited Indonesia in November and praised its "spirit of religious tolerance" as an "example to the world".

A shocking video of Sunday\’s attack shows Muslim fanatics armed with machetes, sticks and rocks screaming "Allahu Akbar" (God is Greatest) as they set upon their victims in a wild frenzy.

They are seen beating and stoning their victims to death, then continuing to beat the corpses in front of police officers.

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Three sect members were killed, five suffered extensive injuries and barely escaped alive, and another two remain missing, police said.

The Ahmadiyah break with most Muslims by believing their founder Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, not Mohammed, was the final prophet of Islam.

"Police should be studying the video closely to identify and apprehend the attackers," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

"And there needs to be a full investigation into why the police absolutely failed to prevent this mob from going on a violent rampage."

Police have said they are questioning two suspects but have made no arrests.

Ahmadiyah spokesman Zafrullah Ahmad Pontoh called on President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to protect people from religious violence.

"Sadistic, sadistic. I can\’t stand watching the video. The people who did this are inhuman, they have no conscience at all," he told AFP.

Indonesia\’s constitution explicitly guarantees freedom of religion. But under pressure from Islamic conservatives, the government in 2008 banned the Ahmadiyah from spreading their faith.

Rights groups said the ban had given legal cover for vigilante violence and should be revoked immediately.

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Activists also demanded the resignation of Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali, who says the Ahmadis would be safe if they simply renounced Islam. Last year he called for the sect to be banned outright.


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