What started as a peaceful rally at the Central Maluku Education Agency in Masohi, Maluku, escalated into a major riot between two neighborhoods on Tuesday.
The demonstration that took place at 8:30 a.m. local time (6:30 a.m. Jakarta time) was sparked by a complaint lodged with police, by the local chapter of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), over the alleged blasphemy of a local teacher.
Welhelmina Holle, a teacher at SD Masohi elementary school, allegedly insulted Islam while tutoring a sixth grader.
After protesting at the education agency office for an hour, the crowd of about 500 marched to the Central Maluku Police headquarters, located around 500 meters away.
The protesters, who had demanded the teacher be dismissed and face the law, were disappointed when they could not meet with Police Chief Adj. Sr. Comr. Eko Widodo, who was in the provincial capital, Ambon.
The crowd dispersed, but soon after a clash erupted between a smaller group and a number of police personnel; a crowd of people at the nearby Masohi Hospital threw rocks at the officers. Information gathered by The Jakarta Post said that Masohi was tense after the clash. The group then gathered in the subdistrict of Letwaru and began to riot.
Dozens of homes were reportedly set ablaze, along with a church and a village hall. Civil servants were sent home early and traders at the Binaya market shut their shops.
Two cars and a motorcycle inside the Binaya bus terminal were also set alight. Major thoroughfares were deserted because of the chaos.
At around 11:30 a.m. Central Maluku Regent Abdullah Tuasikal, accompanied by a number of police personnel, arrived at the scene to appease the warring groups. But it was to no avail, as people continued to carry sharp weapons.
Asked for confirmation, Maluku Provincial Police spokesman Adj. Sr. Comr. J. Huwae told the Post that conditions in Masohi have returned to a semblance of normalcy following the reinforcement of police and soldiers.
"The police, assisted by the military, are able to maintain the situation," Huwae said, adding that a large part of the community sought refuge at the barracks of the 731st Kabaressy infantry battalion.
A resident in Ampera subdistrict, Benny Urayaan, told the Post that the riot was confined to Letwaru.
"The Muslim and Christian communities in Ampera have jointly maintained the security condition in the area," Ronny, a Christian community figure in Ampera, said.
"Muslims and Christians were victimized by sectarian conflict in 1999. We don't want the same thing happening again," he added.
A Muslim youth figure in Ampera, Hatala, concurred, stating that the local Muslim community did not feel instigated by the situation.
"We also feel tense about the situation, but our neighborhood, made up of two different communities, has agreed to guard our area together," Hatala said.
The police have yet to issue an official announcement on the cause of the riot, nor the number of casualties.
However, information from various sources indicates five people were injured and are currently being treated at the hospital.
Police have placed the teacher in their custody.