MAKASSAR, Indonesia – Two assailants blew themselves up outside a crowded Catholic cathedral during a Palm Sunday mass on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, injuring at least 14 people, police said.
Video obtained by the Associated Press showed body parts strewn near a burning motorcycle at the gates of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral in Makassar, the capital of South Sulawesi province.
Reverend Wilhelmus Tulak, a priest at the church, said he had just finished celebrating Palm Sunday Mass when a loud bang shocked his congregation. He said the explosion went off around 10:30 a.m. as a first group of worshipers walked out of the church and another group entered.
He said church security guards were suspicious of two men on motorcycles who wanted to enter the building and when they went to confront them, one of the men detonated his explosives.
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Police later said the two attackers were killed instantly and evidence gathered at the scene indicated that one of them was a woman. The injured included four guards and several worshipers, police said.
The week-long attack before Easter in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation came as the country was on high alert following the arrest in December of the leader of the Southeast Asian militant group , Jemaah Islamiyah, which has been designated a terrorist group by many countries.
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Indonesia has been battling militants since the 2002 bombing of the resort island of Bali killed 202 people, most of them foreign tourists. Attacks on foreigners have largely been replaced in recent years by more modest and less lethal strikes against the government, police and counterterrorism forces, and those militants consider infidels.
President Joko Widodo condemned Sunday’s attack and said it had nothing to do with any religion because not all religions would tolerate any type of terrorism.
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“I call on people to remain calm while worshiping because the state guarantees that you can worship without fear,” Widodo said in a televised speech.
He offered his prayers to the injured and said the government would cover all costs for medical treatment. He said he ordered the national police chief to investigate the attack and crack down on any militant networks that may be involved.
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At the end of Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, which opened Holy Week ceremonies in the Vatican, Pope Francis invited prayers for the victims of the violence. He notably quoted “those of the attack which took place this morning in Indonesia, in front of the cathedral of Makassar”.
Indonesian National Police spokesman Argo Yuwono told a press conference in the capital Jakarta that police were still trying to identify the two motorcycle attackers and whether they were linked to a branch local network banned Jemaah Islamiyah or acted independently.
Indonesian forces arrested group leader Aris Sumarsono, also known as Zulkarnaen, in December. Over the past month, the country’s counterterrorism team arrested around 64 suspects, including 19 in Makassar, following reports of possible attacks on police and places of worship.
While Jemaah Islamiyah has been weakened over the past decade by sustained repression, in recent years a new threat has emerged among militants who have fought with ISIS in Iraq and Syria and returned to Indonesia or inspired by the group’s attacks abroad.
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Indonesia’s last major attack was in May 2018, when two families carried out a series of suicide bombings on churches in Surabaya’s second-largest city, killing a dozen people, including two young girls whose parents were left behind. had involved in one of the attacks. Police said the father was the head of a local branch of the Islamic State group known as Jemaah Anshorut Daulah.
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