You had to look closely to see the thick strands of barbed wire in the shrubs in front of my hotel. I’ve traveled all over the world, including to Kosovo, but this was the first time I’ve stayed in a hotel that was fortified. The staff explained that it was there in case of another riot: Mobs tend to target businesses, especially those owned by Chinese.

There were no riots while I was visiting, but I sensed a country ready to blow. So, naturally, there are people who want America to get involved—not that Washington has ever been far from the action.

For three decades, the now-enfeebled Suharto won U.S. support by opposing communism. Along the way, he built a kleptocracy that turned his family into billionaires. But he stayed in power by spreading the cash. Today, quiet neighborhoods host beautiful homes owned by retired generals and well-connected businessmen. Some of the wealth even made it down to the mass of people. Symbols of Western influence—Pizza Hut and McDonald’s, for instance—abound.

The 1997 Asian economic crisis, however, turned the vast wealth gaps into a political minefield. U.S. and International Monetary Fund aid could not prevent the riots that led the military to discard Suharto. The result is an unstable democracy headed by President Wahid Abdurrahman, whose physical incapacities and mental inconsistencies long ago lost their charm. The country seems to be slowly sliding into chaos.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with a fragmented Indonesia. Whether Aceh and Irian Jaya end up independent of Jakarta is not of earthshaking importance to America. But whether a breakup occurs peacefully is of concern, and that doesn’t seem likely. Indeed, Indonesia is driven by the kind of cultural conflict that should most worry the United States: a modern religious war.

Tensions in the Moluccan Islands run back to colonial times, when the Dutch relied on their coreligionists to help them rule. One former Indonesian official complained about “all the time bombs left by the Dutch.” A Christian-dominated secessionist movement in the Spice Islands sputtered along for years.

For nearly two years, Christians and Muslims have been battling in and around the provincial capital of Ambon. As many as 4,000 have died, and more than 100,000 people have fled. Many have made the treacherous boat trip to surrounding islands. There are more than 8,000 Christian refugees on another island in the city of Manado, and more are arriving daily.

The killing is primitive but effective: Weapons include bombs, guns, even machetes. Death is a daily occurrence. In denying that a massacre had occurred last year, military spokesman Lt. Col. Iwa Budiman explained that “It was just normal fighting between the two sides.”

Lobulisa Leo, a retired general, notes that local Christians and Muslims “would start fighting, and then normally two or three days later settle it. This was a normal happening.” In his view, local people have tired of the killing. “Ambonese, Christians and Muslims of Moluccan origin, are fed up.” But with the arrival of Laskar Jihad, or “holy warrior troops,” the problem has spread beyond the locals. The Muslims “must follow the provocateurs, or they will be killed.”

What makes this sectarian conflict so fearsome is the rising impact of fundamentalist Islam. Warns Lobulisa, “Lately Indonesia has sent a lot of students to get their degrees in Muslim countries, Muslim universities. They brought back Muslim ideas—represented by the Hezbollah forces.”

As a result, since World War II, the impact of “more radical Islamic elements” has been spreading. More ominously, “I have seen it in the army,” says Lobulisa. In January 2000, more than 80,000 Muslims marched in Jakarta to demand a jihad, or holy war, against Christians; Amien Rais, head of Indonesia’s parliament, appeared at the rally, explaining that “Our patience has limits.”

In the beginning, Moluccan Christians were able to defend themselves. But Muslims advanced because they were “backed up by those outside,” explained a retired military officer. Some Indonesian soldiers sent to the islands to stop the killing have intervened on behalf of the Muslim majority; others have turned over their weapons. And a number have simply stood by as Jihad forces arrived. “The military hasn’t done anything,” complained one Christian leader.

That comes as no surprise. Then-Defense Minister Juwono Sudarsono admitted that “some or even many members of the army” have become a “major cause of the clashes.” He wanted them discharged, but acknowledged that there was nothing he could do.

The government’s responsibility is unclear. So far. President Wahid—who, in August, offered a plan to bring peace to the Mideast—has been incapable or unwilling to stop the killing. Some also blame Vice President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who has seemed more interested in improving her standing with the Muslim political parties than in preventing Muslim fundamentalists from killing Christians.

A retired general, who wished to remain anonymous, believes that there are only a few “fanatic Muslims” in the army’s leadership, so Wahid simply “needs to replace them.” But Lobulisa is more pessimistic: “We have changed the top management of the military and the police already three times.” A military spokesman. Rear Air Marshall Graito Usodo, says it is “inevitable” that soldiers would “act emotionally” and disobey orders. Even President Wahid, said one Christian leader, admitted to him in a private meeting that “it was very hard.” While he can give a command, “it doesn’t reach the grass roots.”

Some political factions don’t want to solve the conflict. Many Christians assume that enemies of Wahid, including one-time Suharto allies, are attempting to use the Moluccan conflict to destabilize the government. One Christian leader opined that the attacks in the Moluccas were “an attack on” Wahid. Some in authority share his fears. Defense Minister Juwono believed that Suharto “cronies” were at work, perhaps in an attempt to create sufficient chaos to prevent them from being called to account for their crimes.

What do they hope to gain? Tjahyono Tri, the grounds manager at Doulos Bible School —destroyed in December 1999 by a Muslim mob —believes that some of those supporting this “think maybe they can become leaders.” The goal for others “is to make this a Muslim country.” Several Christians particularly fear the latter goal. One professor claimed: “They are trying to put pressure on parliament. They want Indonesia to become an Islamic state. They want to change the constitution.”

The violence is spreading throughout the entire country. Jihad groups have attempted, with varying success, to inflame attacks on Christians in Bali, Sulawesi, and West Timor.

Throughout the country, some 100 churches were burned in 1998 and 1999. Christians are not safe even in Jakarta, the nation’s capital. “They hate Christians, because the number of Christians is growing. Muslims are converting. They feel Christians are threatening their religion,” explains Robert Lesnussa, a Bible teacher.

In the winter of 1999, thousands of Muslims descended upon Doidos, a seminary and hospital. The rioters wrecked the facilities and killed a 23- year-old student named Sarimam. Two other students almost died, and another 30 were injured. “There was no reason,” said Lesnussa, who explained that the 395 students had good relations with their neighbors. But months earlier, a Hezbollah group had threatened to destroy the facility. A month before the attack, Doulos was vilified in a local mosque because it allegedly sought to “Christianize the Muslims in Indonesia.”

The buildings remain ruins, burnt beams amid concrete rubble. There is no formal legal justification to block rebuilding, but the government typically refuses permission in the face of threats from surrounding Muslims. “There is no solution for Christians,” Lesnussa observes. “If you rebuild, many people will die.”

Even viewing the ruins wasn’t simple. “The situation here is not good,” said Lesnussa, as darkness descended. “We shouldn’t stay too late. This area is not safe.” In fact, several churches were burned in Jakarta last year. Some perceive the military’s hand in the riots. “Normal people won’t do stuff like this,” argued one Christian.

The fear is palpable. “Christian villages have been burned down. People have fled to the mountains. They have no hope. That’s why we need help,” says Lobulisa. A group of Christians—educators, journalists, pastors, retired military, and businessmen—met in Jakarta to talk with me and two other American visitors about rising persecution, but they insisted on not publicizing the meeting. One politely observed at the start, “the situation is very difficult.” But emotions soon rose, prompting another almost to shout, “people are crying for help.”

They offered a series of horror stories: a son murdered, neighbors killed, villages uprooted, churches and schools burned—all with the complicity of the government and security forces.

Despair is a natural reaction. As a former general turned religious leader put it, “Because of the Moluccas, Christians feel they really can’t rely too much on the central government. Despite all of the promises, no good has been done. It is getting worse.”

A coalition of churches, ranging from Catholic to Pentecostal, have called for a mass evacuation of Christians by the U.N. high commissioner for refugees and the introduction of peacekeeping forces by the United Nations.

The people whom I met were united in little other than a desire that the United States do something. All agreed that the Jihad warriors need to be removed. Some would prefer to substitute police for army forces; others hope that the military might play a genuine peacekeeping role. As a Christian professor noted, “we must force the Indonesian armed forces to do something.” The only way they can see that happening is “intervention from outside,” as one participant put it. A Christian journalist explained: “We want action from the United States. Or action from other Western countries, from the United Nations.”

A senior editor at a Christian newspaper said that “America should do something as it is responsible,” because of its past support for Suharto. The head of a religious institute similarly argued that “America and the Western countries have to contribute concrete action to stop these actions.” Another spoke of “moral support and pressure, strong pressure.” Some wanted an investigation from outside. The leader of a Christian umbrella group suggested an embargo; others feared that it would hurt Christians the most.

All of the participants wanted more than just words. One proposed sending in humanitarian workers and observers, particularly the International Red Cross, a suggestion which others criticized for not being “realistic.” But an evangelist wanted the Red Cross to be a tripwire: “If the International Red Cross came, the Muslims would be afraid to kill them. If they murdered someone from the IRC, the’U.N. would not allow it. The U.N. would put troops in to stop it.” Others were more skeptical of the United Nation’s likely response.

A gentleman whose son had been murdered pointed to Kosovo. “You sought permission of the government after more than a million people died in Sudan. Why didn’t you drop bombs on the damn people in Khartoum?” He would “welcome” Kosovo-like intervention in Indonesia.

Others also saw Kosovo as a model. Simple humanitarian help, they believe, is unrealistic because the Muslims “are killing now. Action needs to be directed like Kosovo. It needs to be discussed in the U.N. Security Council.” International pressure might cause the Indonesian military to stop the conflict; if not, “the West should act.” A retired general argued that the goal should be to “make the military neutral. If not, then act like in Kosovo.”

I didn’t point out that such intervention was unlikely because Indonesian Christians aren’t white Europeans. Moreover, Indonesia is too important to threaten. The world’s fourth most populous state, it has the largest Muslim population. Washington has no intention of shaking a country ready to explode.

Nor does outside military action seem a viable answer. Kosovo-like intervention would be difficult to mount and likely to have disastrous consequences. Introduction of U.N. troops with Jakarta’s consent would be almost as dangerous; unlike in East Timor, a large proportion of the population in the Moluccas would resist any foreign occupation.

Moreover, Jakarta’s acceptance of foreign intervention would roil Indonesia’s delicate political dynamic. Once, President Wahid indicated that Western logistical assistance might be necessary. In late July, however, he declared: “Indonesia is able to resolve the sectarian war in Molucca Islands itself.”

Life in Indonesia is not only about politics. In the face of persecution, believers wonder about God’s will. Groundskeeper Tjahyono said that he believes “this is according to God’s plan. Christians are under purification from the Lord.”

The most Indonesian Christians can expect is charitable aid from private groups. My trip was organized by Christian Freedom International (, a private relief agency based in Front Royal, Virginia. Other organizations are also trying to help.

All around the world, beauty and tragedy are mixed in uncertain portions. Unfortunately, the latter seems to be winning in Indonesia, and there’s nothing Washington can (or should try to) do about it.