JAKARTA, Indonesia – A major church in Indonesia's predominantly Christian Papua province said a riot in the provincial capital last month was sparked by the military burning Bibles, contradicting the police account of events.
A report by the Evangelical Christian Church in Papua said a priest and another man from a local congregation took photos of burnt New Testament Bibles at a military base in Jayapura and took several away as evidence.
It said the two men and city officials unsuccessfully tried to calm the crowd that gathered outside the base on May 25 after reports of Bible burning spread on social media. Protesters threw rocks, burned tires and blocked a road as they demanded that soldiers be handed over to them for punishment.
At the time, police said soldiers had burned rubbish and distributed photos of a mass of burned materials that included a book on theology that they annotated with text saying "this is not the Bible."
The military's spokesman in Papua, Teguh Pudji Rahardjo, on Thursday acknowledged that Bibles had been burnt but said it was an accident that was still being investigated.
He said some bibles and theological books that had been brought from Java for distribution to Christians in Papua were inadvertently mixed in with rubbish that was cleared out of the base's mess.
"Like all Indonesians, we as members of the Indonesian Military are religious people, and we respect all religions," Rahardjo said.
The incident is indicative of the tensions that simmer in Indonesia's two easternmost provinces of Papua and West Papua, which are culturally and ethnically distinct from the rest of the sprawling Southeast Asian archipelago, the world's most populous Muslim nation.
A low-level insurgency and resentment at Indonesian rule has endured since the 1960s, when Indonesia annexed the region. It restricts foreign journalists from reporting in both provinces.
Jayapura's chief of police was bruised in an attack by protesters and his aide was hospitalized with stab wounds and an injured nose and jaw, according to both church and police accounts. Three protesters suffered gunshot wounds when police and troops dispersed the crowd.
The police statement said a water cannon was used but the church's report said two armored vehicles from the military base had fired at the crowd.
The Evangelical Christian Church in Papua has about 600,000 members and dates its origins to German missionaries in the 1850s.
AP writer Niniek Karmini in Jakarta contributed to this report.