Konflik Papua

Churches in Papua Give Temporary Shelter to Muslim Migrants Amid Riots

Knowing the rioters wouldn’t enter places of worship, church leaders decided to take people in for protection.
The Wamena riot in Papua
The Wamena riot on September 23, 2019. Photo by Vina Rumbewas/AFP

This article originally appeared on VICE Indonesia.

The Wesaroma Baptist Church became an unlikely refuge for Muslim migrants when church leaders took them in after riots broke out all over Wamena town in Jayawijaya, Papua, Indonesia on Sept. 23. The unrest resulted in 32 deaths, and burned 787 buildings, 122 cars, and 101 motorbikes.

West Papuans are racial and religious minorities in Indonesia, with most identifying as Christian. Meanwhile, most migrants from other parts of the country are Muslim.

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Church leader Simet Yikwa told online news site Suara that on Sept. 23, residents took refuge in the church, his backyard, and the home of Hengky Yikwa, a member of the church and Central Mamberamo’s Legislative Council.

Knowing the rioters wouldn’t enter places of worship, Simet made the church a safe place for those in hiding, even if he had to face insults from rioters. They were calling him names, saying he’s a traitor and a member of the pro-Indonesian government Merah Putih Troops.

After hiding for five hours, the refugees were evacuated by the Indonesian National Armed Forces (TNI) to the Wamena Military District Command (Kodim) headquarters. This humanitarian act saved at least 370 migrant Muslim families from deadly threats.

The Walani Baptist Church also did the same thing, but it’s unclear how many Muslim families sought shelter there. Church treasurer Yafet Wakur confirmed that all the refugees were safe with them.

Nasir, 55, and Rohmah, 45, a married migrant couple who have lived in Sampang, Wamena for 12 years, hid longer than most residents.

“It’s so scary to see how strangers carry machetes and gasoline to hurt residents they meet along the way,” Rohmah told Okezone. “We were still at home when mobs surrounded our house. We managed to escape from the backyard, and I saw my house was set ablaze. We crossed the river to get to the nearest church. A lot of people hid in that church as well. There were Muslims, Christians, and others.”

Papua Customary Council chief Domi Sirabut said that churches were the safest places to hide because rioters were reluctant to cause damage to the property, Republika reported.

Sirabut and his colleagues from the Mary the Lady Catholic Church, located in the outskirts of Wamena, helped evacuate about 25 victims. Most of them were Muslims. Together with church leaders and seminarians, he guarded the front of the church.

“The mobs didn’t have the guts to search for migrants in the church. Migrants weren’t the only ones hiding. There were also teachers and medical personnel,” Sirabut told Republika. They hid inside the church for about 24 hours before being evacuated.

The Wamena riot broke out after rumours of a high school teacher calling their Papuan student a "monkey" spread on messaging apps. National Police Chief Gen. Tito Karnavian later said it was a hoax, but it already sparked outrage among West Papuans. Members of the pro-independence National Committee for West Papua posed as students and attacked residents, especially migrants from other parts of Indonesia, in response.