A  Muslim Shia man during a prayer at a temporary shelter in Sampang.—  AFP Photo

SAMPANG: Condemned as heretics, a community of around 200 Shia Muslims have for months lived as pariahs in a sports hall, driven from their Indonesian village after a deadly clash with Sunnis.

In August, a mob of hundreds armed with sickles and swords hacked a Shia man to death and torched more than 30 houses, forcing villagers to seek refuge at the sports hall.

Since then they have slept on thin mattresses surrounded by flies, sharing few communal toilets and eating modest meals at the Sampang district indoor tennis courts in eastern Java.

Now their future appears more bleak than ever.

Last month, the government cut their free food and water supplies, citing lack of funds. To add insult to injury, religious and village leaders demanded they convert to Sunni Islam or be expelled from the district.

“We don't want to live like refugees. We want to return home as soon as possible, to the village where we were born. But it seems our fate is not for us to decide,” Suleha, a 22-year-old housewife, told AFP.

“Aren't we all Muslims? We believe in the same god, the same prophets, the same Quran. So why can't we get along and live together in peace?”

Indonesia, the world's biggest Muslim-majority nation of 240 million people, is hailed as a bastion of moderate Islam, but rights groups say religious intolerance is on the rise amid concerns that too little is being done to address it.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay warned last month that Indonesia risked losing its culture of diversity and tolerance “if firm action is not taken to address increasing levels of violence and hatred towards minorities and narrow and extremist interpretations of Islam”.

According to a report by the Setara Institute of Peace, a local rights watchdog, 308 incidents in the first half of 2012 were recorded against religious minorities, including Christians, minority Muslim sect Ahmadis and more recently, Buddhists.

Incidents - which include attacks and forced closure of places of worship - have risen steadily since 2009, when 491 cases were reported, rising to 502 in 2010 and to 543 in 2011, Setara said.

The August attack in Sampang was the worst-ever against minority Shia in Indonesia, according to Setara.

Tohir, 50, saw his brother die and bears physical and emotional scars from the attack.

“My stomach feels sore all the time and I still get nightmares,” Tohir said, writhing in pain, showing a long scar on his back and stomach where he was slashed with a sickle.

“They threw rocks and shouted 'Burn the Shias' houses' and 'Kill the Shias''. My brother tried to calm them down, but they killed him. I rushed forward to save him and they attacked me as well,” he said.

“I have not forgiven them. My brother died for nothing. I want justice,” he said.

A Sunni religious leader believed to have orchestrated the attack stood trial earlier this month, charged with assault and murder, which carries a jail term of up to 20 years.

But such attacks in the past have been met with lenient sentences.

“I will never change my faith” 

Sunnis and Shia's agree on the fundamentals of Islam. Sunnis believe that Prophet Mohammed's closest aides were the rightful leaders of Islam while Shia's consider the prophet's cousin and son-in-law, Ali, as his divinely-appointed successor.

The real number of Shias in Indonesia is unknown as many feel forced to practice in secret.

“Their beliefs are heretical. In Sampang, they go to villages to proselytise their deviant ideologies and convert our fellow Sunnis to Shia's,”district chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) Buchori Maksum told AFP.

“They are the real provocateurs.”Munaji, 46, a village chief in Sampang, said that the Shia's were not welcome back in the community. “The Shia's have caused a lot of unrest. We don't welcome them here unless they return to Sunni Islam,” he said.

The MUI in East Java, a stronghold of Sunni Islam, issued a fatwa in January ruling Shia's religious “deviants”, a move slammed as repressive by rights groups.

As the government mulls a solution, patience is wearing thin for the ostracised Shia's, hanging in limbo.

Iklil Al-Melal, 40, who represents the Shia's taking shelter at the tennis hall, said the group rejected the local government's suggestion of relocation.

“On New Year's Day, we plan to go back to the village. We are prepared for the backlash. We have nothing to lose,” he said.

“How can the government guarantee life is safer elsewhere?”With no food and water, the Shia's have stopped bathing and have begun skipping meals. They pool whatever money they have to buy supplies.

Rohah, a 21-year-old housewife, sold her gold ring - the only item she salvaged from her burnt home - to chip in a modest $30. Others, she said, sold cows and goats.

“I've not showered for two days. I've no money to buy milk, so my baby has been drinking water instead,” she said.

"I don't know what the future holds. All I know is that I will never change my faith. I pray that Sunnis will one day accept us."


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