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POPE-INDONESIA Oct-31-2005 (430 words) xxxi

Pope condemns beheadings of Christian girls in Indonesia

By Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Benedict XVI condemned the "barbaric" beheadings of three Christian girls in Indonesia and prayed for the end of civil strife in the area.

Masked men armed with machetes attacked the girls as they walked to school in the town of Poso Oct. 29. Their heads were taken by the killers and were found later in the day, one near a Catholic church and two near a police station.

The girls were dressed in the brown uniforms of their Catholic school on the island of Sulawesi, which has a history of violence between local Christians and Muslims. A fourth girl suffered facial injuries but survived the attack.

The Vatican said that as soon as the pope was given the "painful news of the barbaric killings of three Christian girls in Indonesia" he sent his condolences to the families of the victims.

He also asked the local bishop, Bishop Joseph Suwatan of Manado, to convey his sympathy to the local Catholic community.

The Vatican said the pope was praying "for the return of peace between those populations" on the island.

According to Italian news reports, Bishop Suwatan said the killings were part of a destabilization campaign.

"We are facing a strategy of terror that aims to shock the population and make it feel insecure, precisely when relations between the two communities have become peaceful," Bishop Suwatan said.

Last May, two bomb blasts in a predominantly Christian town on the island left 20 people dead. Officials said they were an attempt to reignite violence in the religiously mixed area.

Several times the church has joined with local Muslim leaders in efforts to quell the violence, which broke out in 1998.

Central Sulawesi is an impoverished, remote area wedged between the predominantly Christian northern and mainly Muslim southern parts of the island. Its people earn a living from farming and fishing.

Some have described the violence there as a spillover from fighting between Christian and Muslim communities in the Molucca Islands to the east.

Others have said it was caused by the influx of mainly Muslim migrants from Java, reducing the Christian majority. Muslims now dominate the political and commercial life in the area around Poso, and local people maintain that tens of thousands of mainly Christian inhabitants have been expelled from Poso and surrounding villages.

Christians said some of the violence in recent years has been provoked by members of the Jihad Fighters, a Java-based militant Islamic group that claims to offer protection for Muslims it says are being besieged by other communities.


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