Indonesian blasphemy law sparks Muslim violence in Java

Jakarta, Indonesia - Indonesia has been shocked this month by two outbreaks of religious violence on the island of Java, involving Muslim fundamentalists who attacked members of the Muslim Ahmadiyya sect and, in a separate incident, three Christian churches.

On 8 February an angry mob condemned a court in Temanggung for its "lenient" sentence against a Christian convicted of blasphemy. Antonius Banwengan, 58, was arrested last year for handing out a Christian book and leaflets poking fun at some of the most sacred Islamic symbols. The five-year prison sentence for blasphemy, the maximum allowed under Indonesian law for this type of offence, was not enough for the crowd. "Kill him," chanted more than 1,000 demonstrators who attacked the building and police, threatening the judges and prosecutor, the accused and his counsel.

Muslims account for 80% of the country's total population of 230 million but the Indonesian constitution guarantees freedom of religion. However, human rights organisations stress that violence against religious minorities has been on the rise.

The riots in Temanggung came two days after another outbreak of violence, also in Java. On 6 February about 1,000 extremists armed with stones and machetes attacked members of the Ahmadiyya community, a Muslim sect founded in India in the 19th century that does not recognise Mohammed as the last prophet and is considered heretical by orthodox Muslims.

Three people were killed and six others seriously injured. A video showing the attack prompted a public outcry. The next day President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said he was "deeply shocked" by the violence, which erupted just before the start of World Interfaith Harmony Week.