Don't convert Muslim children, priest is warned

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 January, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 January, 2005, 12:00am

Extremists cast a cloud over plan by Australian to build an orphanage

An Australian Catholic priest yesterday announced an alliance with Indonesia's second largest Muslim organisation to build an orphanage in devastated Aceh province, despite warnings that radical Islamic groups could stir up tensions.

Father Chris Riley's Youth Off The Streets group, which claims no religious leaning, has teamed up with Muhammadiyah, which represents 40 million Muslims in Indonesia and runs 300 orphanages.

The Indonesian government estimates 15,000 children may have been orphaned in the tsunami.

News of the alliance comes after an extremist Islamic group - the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), best known for raiding Jakarta's nightclubs and bars during the Muslim holy month - warned Father Riley not to attempt to convert Muslim children.

Father Riley had not felt personally threatened, his spokesman said. He had received a warm reception from local groups for his plan to provide relief 'in a way that respects and supports the culture and identity of the children'.

But prominent Aceh experts warned that the small number of extremist Muslims who had sent volunteers to provide relief in Aceh could target the thousands of western aid workers and troops now working in the province.

Aceh, the only province in Indonesia allowed to apply sharia law had been closed to foreigners since martial law was imposed in 2003.

'The potential is clearly there for the whole situation to erupt,' said Sidney Jones, southeast Asia project director for the International Crisis Group.

'Hardline groups like the Majelis Mujahedeen Indonesia (MMI) seem to see their role not only as providing help to victims of the tsunami but also as a way of guarding against 'infidel' influence.'

MMI, which wants an Islamic state in secular Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, has been referred to as the public face of al-Qaeda-linked terrorist network Jemaah Islamiah.

MMI's paramilitary arm, along with the FPI and other Indonesian extremist groups have sent hundreds of men to Banda Aceh, where they are earning respect for carrying out dirty jobs like collecting corpses while attempting to stir up sentiment against the US and its allies, according to reports.

Analysts said the potential for their hostility towards the west to turn into violence should be taken seriously.

'In the last week, there have been a lot of rumours circulating in text messages mentioning the efforts of certain Christian groups to open orphanages or to take Acehnese children out of Aceh,' said Azyumardi Azra, head of Jakarta's State Islamic University.

'This of course will create tension and we may see Muslim hardline groups conducting demonstrations to appeal to the government to implement strict regulations about this.'

While the Australian government, whose embassy in Jakarta was targeted by terrorists last year, said it would be political suicide for hardline groups to attack western relief workers in Aceh at least in the short-term, analysts disagreed.

Radical Islamic groups in Indonesia were not concerned with what was politically popular, said Tim Lindsey, University of Melbourne associate-professor in Asian law.

'JI and extremist terrorist groups in Indonesia couldn't give a damn what the public think.

'Their main motivation is to destabilise the Indonesian state and set up an Islamic state. If they attacked aid workers, western aid agencies would pull out and the government would look incapable of doing its job.'