When They Didn’t Turn the Other Cheek

AT one end of Jembatan II, a bridge connecting the Christian village of Ranononcu to the Muslim village of Gebang Rejo across the Poso River, were the red troops shouting “Hallelujah!” At the other end were the white troops yelling “Allahu Akbar (God is Great)!”

“After ‘Hallelujah,’ ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Allahu Akbar,’ ‘Allahu Akbar,’ I heard pak, pak, pak, pak and boom, boom, boom, boom,” recalls Pastor Rinaldy Damanik, the 47-year-old chairman of the Central Sulawesi Christian Church, describing the sounds of gunshots and bomb explosions that came one after another.

It was 7:30 a.m. on November 11, 2001. At the bridge, which is three kilometres from Poso town, Damanik made a phone call to the district commander of the Indonesian military. He told the commander to send troops as soon as possible to stop the fighting.

“He answered, ‘Bagaimana caranya (How to do it)?’” recounts the pastor. “I told him, ‘Why ask me? That is your duty.’”

About five hours after Damanik’s phone call, the security forces arrived. But by then it was too late; lives had already been lost.

To this day, Damanik still has many questions whenever he thinks of the prolonged conflict between Christians and Muslims in Poso that began the night before Christmas in 1998: Why were Christians and Muslims so easily provoked to kill each other? Was it the failure of religious teaching? Why did the government the conflict to escalate?

When Damanik himself is asked why Christians attacked Muslims on May 23, 2000, he replies that since the government did not arrest those who were involved in the December 1998 and April 2000 riots, the Christians had decided to take justice into their own hands.  He also says that around April 2000, Christians began producing weapons. Surprisingly, relates the pastor, photocopied directions on how to make revolvers and M-16s were being distributed, while bullets were being sold in Poso district. Damanik wonders aloud:
“Don’t the military and the police have supplies of bullets, as well as the knowhow on how to make weapons?”

Two days before the Christian attack of Poso town, though, Damanik was telling his congregation during Sunday mass at Moria Church in Tentena, some 59 kms from Poso town, that “violence cannot be solved by violence but everyone has to defend themselves”.

He says that while he was writing that sermon, he was pondering over questions like, “what happens when the Muslims attack us? Do we just keep quiet? Just let them kill us? Burn our house? But at the same time won’t God be angry if we used violence to defend ourselves?”

“I waited for God to debate with me,” says Damanik, “but He was silent.”

As for Jesus’ teaching of offering the other cheek, he retorts, “Both of our cheeks and forehead had been slapped. Will you not get angry when your wife is killed and your house and church burnt?”

Damanik actually had a 10-million-rupiah price tag on his head during the conflict. In the end, he was among the Christian leaders who co-signed the Malino peace agreement on Dec. 21, 2001.

He says he misses the times when he could nurse a cup of coffee the whole day talking with his Muslim friends in a stall in town. Today, says Damanik, “when I take my coffee in Poso town, church members and policemen tell me not to linger too long.” – Philip S. Golingai

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