The Religious Affairs Ministry said that social and economic woes rather than religious tension sparked recent incidents of sectarian strife, in the government’s latest attempt to downplay an attack last month against a Shiite community in East Java.
Reading a statement from minister Suryadharma Ali at the opening of an international conference on religious education, H. Machasin, the head of the ministry’s research and development unit, said the underlying causes for such tensions were not necessarily religious in nature.
However, they were exploited by irresponsible parties and given a religious spin, he said, resulting in the tensions boiling over into violence.
Suryadharma’s statement did not mention specific cases, but it comes two weeks after an attack on the Shiite community in the Sampang district of Madura Island by a mob of 500 Sunni Muslims.
The Aug. 26 attack left two Shiites dead and dozens injured. The mob also torched the Shiites’ homes in Nangkrenang village, in a repeat of a similar attack on the same community on Dec. 29 last year. The latest fire forced the group of around 400 Shiites to take refuge at a sports stadium.
Police and government officials have repeatedly denied that the attack was a case of sectarian violence, blaming it instead on a family feud boiling over.
Suryadharma and Gen. Timur Pradopo, the National Police chief, have also courted criticism for their proposal that the victims be relocated to another area to prevent future attacks against them.
Rights activists have lashed out at the minister for not denouncing a fatwa, or religious edict, issued by conservative clerics in the wake of last December’s attack that branded the Shiites as heretics.
Zuhairi Misrawi, a scholar with the Moderate Muslim Society, said earlier this month that Suryadharma’s failure to respond decisively to the first attack made him “part of the problem that we’re seeing in Sampang.”