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Jakarta downplays talk of holy war

Muslim-Christian violence in Spice Islands spurs call for jihad and

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Indonesia's president, key Islamic leaders, and some intellectuals are mobilizing to defuse calls for a jihad, or holy war, against Christians here in the world's most populous Muslim country.

Tens of thousands of people gathered in Jakarta last Friday to vent their anger over clashes in Indonesia's Molucca Islands, where Muslims and Christians have been fighting for a year. Some speakers demanded a jihad, and smaller groups have echoed this call nearly every day since.

Yesterday, some 200 white-clad protesters from the Front for the Defense of Islam demonstrated at the parliament, saying they would go to the Moluccas to fight if the government does not halt the violence.

Indonesia is a nation under stress. The economy is still reeling from Asia's financial crisis of 1997, the political system is trying to emerge from dictatorship, and some groups in this diverse nation want to break away.

Thirty-five years ago, amid the pressures of the cold war, Indonesia's military and its supporters waged a de facto jihad against perceived communists, killing an estimated 500,000 people. No one wants to see a recurrence.

In recent days President Abdurrahman Wahid has seemed intent on making sure no one takes too literally those who are demanding a jihad. "I do not care whether they want a jihad or not, or anything else, but as soon as the safety of the state and people is endangered we will take action," Mr. Wahid said Tuesday. He promised to punish anyone fomenting violence.

Even Ahmad Sumargono, the leader of a sometimes militant Islamist group, attempted to downplay the fervor of the calls for jihad, telling the Jakarta Post that the term referred to "solidarity," not armed conflict.

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