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Aceh Fears Christian Missionaries Will Steal Tsunami Orphans

by Andreas Harsono

Indonesia Relief Aid Must Be Carefully Monitored, Watchdog Group Says

(IPS) JAKARTA -- It began with mobile phone messages just days after the Dec. 26 undersea quake and killer waves flattened the province of Aceh in northern Sumatra, killing over 100,000 people.

The messages were short and clear. They warned Indonesian Muslims that Christians were adopting Acehnese orphans, presumably to be taken out of Aceh and converted to Christianity.

In the capital Banda Aceh, activists of the Muslim-based Prosperous and Justice Party later put up posters in public spaces with this warning: "Don't let Acehnese orphans be taken away by Christians and their missionaries." The party also printed their telephone numbers, encouraging the public to hand over orphans to Muslim child-care centers instead.

The United Nations children's agency, UNICEF, puts the number of affected children, including those who have been orphaned, injured or traumatized by the disaster -- which devastated coastline communities along the Indian Ocean -- at close to 1.5 million across south and south3east Asia.

In the worst hit Indonesian province of Aceh alone, close to the epicenter of the earthquake, some 35,000 children are estimated to have been affected.

Hence, it is only natural for one to be moved by the plight of these destitute children.

Kristiani Herrawati, who visited Aceh with her husband, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, also took the initiative to show compassion and wanted to adopt a 13-year- old Acehnese boy, Muhammad Dede Nirwanda. This caused a public uproar.

In the second week after the disaster, Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla, who also heads the national disaster center, announced that he would include the Indonesian Council of Ulemas to help decide on the adoption of Acehnese orphans.

"We will help the children to keep their faith. No adoption could be done without the ulemas' (Islamic clergymen's) supervision," he said.

The media of Palmerah, a Jakarta neighborhood where top newspapers and TV channels are headquartered, played up Kalla's statement. But not a single media outlet could quite explain what prompted the vice-president and Muslim activists to focus on religion when the bulk of attention was on how to get emergency aid fast to the tsunami survivors.

In Kalla's statement, the innuendo was palpable: relief services had been motivated by religious considerations. Perhaps such worries had been sparked because international relief organizations -- whose workers are mostly westerners and presumably Christians -- were among the first to rush to Aceh.

But it seems more a case of paranoia: there is nothing to suggest that international relief workers are keen to take away Acehnese children and neither have Indonesian churches demonstrated such altruism.

"Just report it to me if there are churches doing this," said Nathan Setiabudi of the Communion of Churches in Indonesia.

Aceh has an immense symbolic importance for Muslims who constitute 88.3 per cent of Indonesia's 201 million citizens, according to the 2000 census. It was the seat of the first Islamic kingdom in the archipelago in the 13th century, when its neighbors were under Hindu or Buddhist rulers.

But Aceh is also the home to a secessionist movement, though not one prompted by religion. Still, with Muslims comprising 97.3 per cent of Aceh's 1.7 million citizens, the adoption issue, however imaginary, worries many Islamic activists, including Jusuf Kalla -- himself a Muslim.

Since 1976, the Free Aceh Movement or GAM has battled the Jakarta government in a war that has claimed more than 10,000 lives. The rebels contend that the Javanese, the dominant ethnic group in Indonesia, annexed Aceh illegally when the Republic of Indonesia was founded in 1945.

In 1979, the authoritarian U.S.-backed Suharto regime began a military operation to crush the rebels. General Suharto did not succeed in his move. In May 2003, the post-Suharto Indonesian government again placed the province under strict military control and isolated the area in an attempt to defeat the insurgents. Human rights groups and victims' families have charged that Indonesian troops have singled out and killed civilians suspected of being rebel supporters.

In a bid to pacify the rebels, Jakarta also granted Aceh partial autonomy that permits the limited implementation of Islamic law. Although the separatists are devout Muslims they have rejected autonomy saying that independence is more important to them than the rule of the land in accordance with Islam's tenets.

Aceh is now an internationally recognized disaster area after world leaders like U.S. State Secretary Colin Powell, UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, World Bank President James Wolfensohn and many others visited the area to get a first-hand account of the extent of the destruction.

Besides the foreign dignitaries, Indonesians of various shades, too, have made their way there -- from Islamic militant groups to students and politicians.

As of such, it is inevitable that politics now rears its ugly head in the distribution of relief aid.

The Indonesian military or TNI controls the distribution of emergency relief in Aceh, and GAM rebels have accused them of using the disaster as a pretext to carry out more attacks on the resistance. The TNI on the other hand claims that the rebels are stealing aid, although relief agencies, which have been travelling freely outside the main towns, have not reported any problems.

Bakhtiar Abdullah, a GAM spokesperson in their exile headquarters in Stockholm, welcomed the arrival of international relief workers, but deplored the presence of members of the "thuggish so-called Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and the terrorist Indonesia Mujahidin Council (MMI)."

"The actions and words of both the FPI and MMI are against the teachings of the Holy Quran and the Hadith and contradict the tolerance and faith of Achenese Muslims," said Bakhtiar.

"Neither the FPI nor the MMI has any credentials or skills in disaster relief, and their presence is clearly intended as a provocation to the people of Aceh," he added.

But the TNI has welcomed both groups, saying that they came to the province to help the tsunami victims. The media of Palmerah, too, has distanced itself from reporting on the GAM.

Meanwhile, the mainstream press is fanning suspicions that the U.S. troops helping out in the relief efforts could be providing assistance to the GAM rebels instead. During the past nine days, U.S. Navy helicopters have rushed food, water and medical supplies to areas that are likely to remain inaccessible and in desperate need for weeks.

But President Yudhoyono is trying to put a stop to these claims.

"The presence of foreign servicemen here is apolitical; they are conducting a humanitarian operation. After some time we will take over the operation, but for now we are grateful for their presence," he said.

But the president's admission, as well as his deputy's remarks, shows very well that sectarianism and narrow-minded nationalism are the hidden agendas in Aceh's relief operation.

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Albion Monitor January 11, 2005 (

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