BEKASI, Indonesia Jan 24 - The leader of a violent Islamic vigilante group on Monday denied instigating an attack on Christian elders, in a case which has raised fears over growing religious intolerance in Indonesia.
With a hand raised as he took an oath in court, Murhali Barda, head of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) in the Jakarta suburb of Bekasi, said that he “never provoked anyone to do anything unpleasant”.
“I swear to God I never incited the defendants to stab anyone...I never sent text messages urging anyone to carry out the brutal attack,” he said.
Barda was charged with provoking an attack against priest Luspida Simanjuntak and Christian elder Asia Sihombing, in which Simanjuntak was beaten with a stick and Sihombing stabbed on their way to a service last September.
Twelve alleged accomplices also face charges over the attack, which occured in Bekasi, a suburb where religious tensions had been simmering after some Muslims accused local Christians of holding church services without permission.
Barda said he had taken part in the protests as a Bekasi resident, not as a member of FPI, which is known for its cosy relations with government officials and its armed attacks on moderates and minorities.
“The church activities had provoked and caused restlessness among mostly Muslim residents here,” he added.
Human rights groups say religious violence has been on the rise in recent months, mainly by Muslims against minority groups including Christians.
Rights group Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace said in a report Monday there were 216 incidents of religious freedom violations in 2010, many targeting Christians.
The violations, mostly by radical Muslim groups, include assault, forced closure of churches and prohibition of religious activities, it said.
More than eighty percent of Indonesia’s 240 million people are Muslims but the country’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion.
The governing coalition, which includes Islamic parties, has failed to crack down on several violent Islamic vigilante groups which take the law into their own hands and operate with near impunity.