Religious violence and intolerance flared up in Indonesia's North Sumatra over the weekend when an angry Muslim mob burned down (or damaged) 12 Buddhist temples in Tanjung Balai. According to local authorities the mob was mobilized after an Indonesian woman of Chinese descent complained about the loud volume of the calls to prayer and Koranic recitals at the mosque that is situated in front of her house. One day later, seven people were detained by Indonesian police on suspicion of attacking the temples.
Local authorities say that provocateurs on social media seriously aggravated the situation. Allegedly, the angry mob mobilized after there emerged stories on social media that the Chinese woman threw items at the mosque and managed to interrupt the prayers. However, South Tanjung Balai sub-district head Pahala Zulfikar says these stories are not true and were only aimed at aggravating the situation. A police unit will now investigate who these provocateurs were.
The temple attacks occurred on Saturday (30/07). One day later, the situation was reportedly conducive as Indonesian police and military stepped up security at Buddhist temples to prevent similar attacks. There were no reports of any casualties or injuries in these incidents.
Indonesia is a Muslim-majority nation where most Muslims practice a moderate form of Islam. However, there the country also has a long history of religious violence. Every year there are sporadic attacks on churches, temples or certain streams within Islam (for example the Ahmadiyyah). Indonesia also has a history of anti-Chinese violence (this violence was particularly harsh during the chaotic early days of the Asian Financial Crisis). Most of Indonesia's ethnic Chinese community practice Buddhism.
There exist negative sentiments toward the ethnic Chinese minority in Indonesia because they are considered outsiders (even though most Chinese families have been living in Indonesia for generations) and are perceived as rich. However, only a small minority within the ethnic Chinese minority have managed to establish grand business empires. Despite Buddhist temples being attacked, local authorities emphasize that the incidents in Tanjung Balai over the weekend are not related to anti-Chinese sentiments.
In response to the incidents in Tanjung Balai, Indonesia's second-biggest Muslim organization, Muhammadiyah, emphasized the importance of greater religious and racial tolerance in North Sumatra.