A sword attack at a Catholic church by a Muslim assailant this week in the Indonesian city of Yogyakarta injured four people during Sunday Mass, a disturbing sectarian episode in a country that has typically seen communities of various faiths live together without incident.
This wasn’t the first such attack on a church in Indonesia; there were two other knife attacks in the cities of Medan and Samarinda in 2016.
Police shot and wounded the 22-year-old male assailant, Suliono, at St. Lidwina Bedog church in Yogyakarta’s Sleman District. His victims include an 81-year-old German priest; all four who were wounded are now reportedly in stable condition. He also decapitated statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
“The attack on the church in Yogyakarta was clearly an extremist act of violence,” said Bonar Tigor Naipospos of the Setara Institute, a religious affairs think tank in Jakarta. “Although the police have not yet completed the investigation and have been dubbing it a ‘lone wolf’ attack, this incident it indicates that violent extremist acts in Indonesia don’t just target police officers, who are considered the agents of a kafir [nonbeliever] government, but also religious minority groups.” Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim-majority country and is about 87 percent Muslim.
Knife attacks are becoming a copycat phenomenon because it is the “easiest way” to inflict violence in Indonesia, which has fairly strict gun control laws, said Nava Nuraniyah, a researcher with the Institute for Policy Analysis and Conflict (IPAC).
Indonesia’s national police chief, Tito Karnavian, has indicated that the assailant may have links to extremist cells in Poso, a region in Central Sulawesi that harbored deadly conflict between Christians and Muslims in the 1990s and has more recently seen militants from ISIS-linked terror groups.
The last major church attack, in Samarinda, East Kalimantan, was also initially described as a “lone wolf” incident but was later revealed to have links with a regional ISIS affiliate called Jamaah Anshorud Daulah (JAD).
Suliono is being questioned in Jakarta by Indonesia’s elite counterterrorism force, Densus-88. Police spokesman Setyo Wasisto told Kompas he seems to have self-radicalized on the internet and has tried “two or three times” in the past to go to Syria and join the radical Islamic State group.
Domestic terrorist activity has spiked in Indonesia, particularly on Java island (where Yogyakarta and Jakarta are both located) after 2016, when it became difficult for ISIS-sympathizers to travel to the Middle East and calls were issued to “wage war at home,” according to a recent report from IPAC.
The report claims that the extremism of ISIS-sympathizers “has not disappeared, but rather has been temporarily pushed underground where it will stay dormant until the next leader or movement or big idea comes along to stir up sleeping cells.”
Suliono also reportedly sold mobile phones in order to buy the sword used in the attack and researched churches near the mosque where he was staying in Yogyakarta, indicating a degree of premeditation.
The attack has been widely condemned in Indonesia, where actual violence against religious minorities remains low despite rising intolerance. The Sultan of Yogyakarta, who is also the region’s governor, condemned the incident and called on police to solve the case.
Christians account for about 9 percent of Indonesia’s 260 million people, and are free to worship according to the constitution, which is not secular but protects six different religions. There has been a steady drip of anti-Christian sentiments in recent years, peaking in 2017 when Jakarta’s Christian governor was ousted and imprisoned because of an extensive campaign from Islamic fundamentalists. It’s not always dramatic: sometimes Christmas services are disrupted, or Muslim small business turn down Christian customers.
Whatever its severity, religious intolerance is likely to escalate as Indonesia heads into the long 2019 presidential election season, during which religious identity will be a presiding concern.