27 March 2000 (Newsroom) -- At least 40 people were killed last week in continuing sectarian violence in Indonesia's Moluccas, also known as the Spice Islands. According to news reports, the fatalities resulted from clashes between Muslims and Christians in the town of Galela on the island of Halmahera in North Malaku province.
Meanwhile, an Australian church group claims that Australia may send back 54 people who fled violence in the North Malaku capital of Ambon in late January. A small boat carried the families, including children, on a dangerous journey to Australian waters. In a statement, John Barr, secretary for Indonesia with the Uniting Church in Australia, said that the government assessed the situation of the boat people without the presence of an independent third party. "There is no independent way of knowing if they are being forced back to Ambon against their will," Barr said. "We have good reason to believe these people will be in danger if they are forced to return to Ambon. They did not make the long and dangerous journey to Australia simply to 'jump the que' or gain special privileges."
The Ambonese boat people say that radical Muslims are trying to force Christians out of North Malaku, whose capital is Ambon. In the past five to 10 years internal migration of Muslims has gradually made them the majority in the region. Some Christians say they feel threatened by the loss of power, and many -- both Christians and Muslims -- maintain that newcomers have disrupted centuries of peaceful coexistence between the two groups. The Moluccas are 55 percent Muslim and 45 percent Christian.
Sectarian conflict in the region has claimed an estimated 3,000 lives since January 1999, according to human rights groups. Tensions were re-ignited on December 26 when a Christian bus driver ran over a Muslim youth in Ambon, which led to violence that took more than 400 lives. Indonesian press reports said the clashes were the worst of any religious conflict since the country achieved independence half a century ago. In mid-January the violence spread to other parts of the Moluccas, including the tourist resort island of Lombok, near Bali.
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