Woman minister killed in Indonesian church

Gunmen burst into a church in eastern Indonesia and shot dead a female reverend and wounded four of her congregation as she delivered her sermon, sparking fears of fresh religious violence, officials say.

All four of the wounded were teenagers and one of them, an 18-year-old girl shot in the left eye, had only a slim chance of surviving after the raid late on Sunday in Palu city in Central Sulawesi, a police spokesman said on Monday.

Palu is near the regency of Poso, where more than 2,000 people have died in Muslim-Christian clashes 1999.

"Five men opened fire at the front door of the Effata church after threatening the security guard," said spokesman Victor Batara from Palu, about 1,500 km (900 miles) northeast of Jakarta. The gunmen fled on two motorcycles.

Protestant minister Susianti Tinolele, who previously lived in Poso died at the scene, he said.

Local media reported Tinolele, 29, fell straight to the church floor after a bullet rammed through her skull, prompting around 100 churchgoers to frantically run for safety.

A yellow police line now encircles the church, and police barred onlookers and the media from the scene of the crime.

Christian leaders in Palu have called on followers to shun any form of retaliation as the identities of the gunmen are still unknown.

Central Sulawesi police said one of the main gunmen had long hair but buried his face under a blue cap, but offered no details on the other attackers.

The motive was not known, spokesman Batara said. "But clearly they want to disturb security as it has been relatively safe recently."

In Jakarta, President Megawati Sukarnoputri told reporters: "I ask the public to be alert because we must maintain security and political stability ahead of the final round of the presidential election."

Megawati is expected to face her former security minister in a run-off vote on September 20 after a first round election failed to produce a majority for any of the five candidates competing. The top two vote-getters go to the run-off.

Indonesian financial markets have been nervous about possible violence during the elections.

Chief Security Minister Hari Sabarno told reporters the incident could spark fresh religious tension.

"This certainly will create a situation that can lead into ...conflict," he said.

"When the target is a religious leader from a specific religion, people may think this was done by another religion," he said, without indicating if any specific group was suspected.

"Of course, we cannot accept that a priest who was giving a sermon be shot like that. The person who did it was inhuman."

Security forces in the province were hunting for the attackers, police said.

The incident comes after an Easter shooting in April in Poso town that wounded seven people, including a four-year-old girl and last May's murder of a prosecutor in Palu after he attended a Bible-reading session.

Some 85 percent of Indonesia's 220 million people are Muslim. In some eastern parts, such as the Poso-Palu area, Christian and Muslim populations are about equal in size.

Since the Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s, Indonesia, the world's fourth largest country, has experienced political turbulence and sporadic ethnic and religious clashes.

Several attacks, including the October 2002 Bali blasts that killed 202 people, have been blamed on the al Qaeda-linked militant Jemaah Islamiah network.

Five alleged members of the group were convicted in Palu on various charges under anti-terrorism laws in March.