- The Washington Times - Monday, December 17, 2001

Steve Snyder's moment of truth came on Nov. 19 at about 5:30 a.m.
He was lying on a bed in a hotel room in Palu, a small city on Sulawesi, a pinwheel-shaped Indonesian island straddling the equator. He wondered: Should he and his companions venture further into the island's war-torn interior?
Lying on a nearby bed was Dr. David B. Harding, 52, a general practitioner from Silver Spring. "Steve," the doctor said, "Let's rethink this."
"Dave," Mr. Snyder said, "Let's pray about it."
South of them was the road to the coastal city of Poso, and further on was the 70-mile route to Tentena, a lakeside city in the midst of the island's steamy jungles.
Between Poso and Tentena was a gantlet of "jihad posts" staffed by Islamic soldiers bearing AK-47s. Some of the soldiers at these posts, Mr. Snyder had heard, were stopping buses and cars along the route. Any Christian passengers were hauled out and either killed on the spot or driven into the jungle, never to be seen again.
Mr. Snyder, 53, president of International Christian Concern, a Silver Spring-based organization that monitors worldwide religious persecution, bowed his head for prayer. A sandy-haired man who stands 5 feet, 10 inches tall, he has been toughened by visits to the war zones of southern Sudan and Azerbaijan.
But this was another situation altogether. Awaiting them, both men heard, were 63,000 terrified Christians who had been informed a "bloody Christmas" awaited them at the hands of radical Islamic militants.
Some 28,000 of them were refugees whose towns and villages had been looted, burned and bulldozed by a militant Islamic group, the Laskar Jihad. Another 3,000 Christians were said to be hiding out in jungles.
The two men decided to continue. Climbing into a sport utility vehicle along with a translator and an eight-man military escort, they headed south. When the four-wheel-drive SUV pulled into a Poso gas station, they were informed that only Muslims were allowed fuel. The men crouched behind the tinted glass of the vehicle so the weapon-toting guards at the station would not spot them.
Heading toward Tentena, they quickly encountered roadblocks with "jihad post" emblazoned on them. Guards with AK-47s stood next to photos of Osama bin Laden.
"The police escorts with us were petrified," Mr. Snyder said. "We stopped at one jihad post and offered them coffee if we could take pictures. They had no idea who we were."
Further on, the passengers noticed that all the Christian villages along the way had been razed, the Muslim villages left untouched.
"We also saw some writings on the burned out walls mocking Jesus Christ," Mr. Snyder said. "We were told villages off the main road were in worse condition. They were not only burning them down, but bringing in bulldozers and leveling them. Christians do not have access to all that equipment, much less the assault rifles that are being used."
He cited the 13 Christians killed and more than 500 churches on the island of Java burned down in 1998, followed by a Muslim attack that Christmas Day in Puso, when 180 homes and shops were destroyed.
After another 800 homes, shops and churches of Christians in Poso were destroyed on Easter 2000, the Christians struck back a month later in a battle that left 700 dead and 8,000 homes and shops destroyed. That was the battle that moved the Laskar Jihad to announce plans to send thousands of warriors to Sulawesi, ostensibly to defend their Muslim brethren.
"In the first two incidents, the Christians turned the other cheek," Mr. Snyder said. "But the Christians told me, 'We only have two cheeks. Jesus never told us what to do after we've turned aside both.'
"I will say the majority of Muslims are not sympathetic to the Laskar Jihad. Muslims and Christians used to live next to each other in harmony. There are still 31 Muslim families in Tentena," he said.
Once in Tentena, the visiting Americans found 40 refugee families living under a canopy and sleeping on concrete floors with no blankets or pads. Cooking was impossible as there had not been fuel deliveries in weeks. Dr. Harding quickly distributed the 300 pounds of medicine he had brought.
"The most heartbreaking sight we saw was a 7-month-old baby who had only been fed with sugar water," he said. "She was totally malnourished."
The biggest needs in the camps are fresh water and sewage treatment, as many refugees lack even so much as a mat or a blanket on which to sleep.
"They're stuck there," Dr. Harding said of the Christians. "They can't leave, they can't fly out and they always get blamed if there's any conflict between them and the Muslims."
Local police told both men that the Jakarta-based government had withdrawn much of its military forces from the region, leaving the Christians defenseless. The 35-man police force left to guard Tentena only had three rifles between them.
"The major of the police force in charge of four counties told me that he had in his custody six foreigners: two Pakistanis and four Afghanis," Mr. Snyder said. "He was ordered by the military to release them and not interrogate them. He had no doubt they've been involved in training the Laskar Jihad there."
The Christians of Tentena have stationed their men around the outskirts of the city, while women and children are packing their belongings for a possible flight into the jungle.
"We were able to board our plane and depart in safety," Mr. Snyder said, "but our hearts cried out for our dear brothers and sisters trapped in the district of Poso. Most have no alternative other than to stay and wait to be slaughtered."
Traditional Islam in Indonesia has included a heavy dose of Javanese spiritualism and has been far less strict than some of its Middle Eastern versions. But Christians in central Indonesia say the Laskar Jihad has told them to convert or else. Imprisoned pastors are beheaded.
Those who agree to convert men and women alike are then forcibly circumcised, either with scissors or dirty knives, then told to disinfect their wounds in the sea.
Christians trapped on islands like Bacan, Seram, Doi, Jibubu, Sekele, Paspalele and Lata-Lata have appealed to be rescued from forced Islamization. Some 2,700 have been ferried off these islands secretly by boat, Mr. Snyder said, but another 6,000 remain. One of his organization's goals is to ship money to Indonesian Christians with boats, who have the wherewithal to bring their trapped brethren to safety.
In the past week, the Indonesian government has sent several thousand troops to Poso and Tentena to avert a massacre that was slated for last Friday, the end of Ramadan. Mr. Snyder is now back in town trying to interest members of Congress in the fate of a Christian minority in an overwhelmingly Muslim country. The ongoing religious wars around Sulawesi and the Moluccan islands to the east have displaced 500,000 people.
The United States threw in an extra $10 million for refugees in a $130 million aid package arranged by President Bush and Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri on Sept. 19.
Joanna Milosz of the London-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide says that in her travels around central Indonesia, she has found that many moderate Muslims want nothing to do with the Laskar Jihad.
"But they are afraid to say anything," she says. "The whole Moluccas conflict has been fraught with misinformation from the beginning. The Western press goes overboard in being sensitive to the Muslim community. They do not want to be Islamophobic, so they ignore the realities of the situation."

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