MAKASSAR, Indonesia – Two attackers blew themselves up in front of a crowded Roman Catholic cathedral during a Palm Sunday mass on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, injuring at least 20 people, police said.
A video obtained from The Associated Press showed body parts scattered near a burning motorcycle outside the gates of the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Makassar, capital of South Sulawesi province.
Rev. Wilhelmus Tulak, a priest in the church, said he was just celebrating Palm Sunday Mass when a loud bang shocked his congregation. He said the explosion started around 10:30 am when a first group of churchgoers left the church and another group came in.
He said church security was suspicious of two men on a motorcycle trying to enter the building, and when they faced them, one of the men detonated his explosives.
Police later said both attackers were killed instantly and evidence gathered at the scene showed that one of the two was a woman. The wounded included four guards and several churchgoers, the police said.
The attack came a week before Easter in the world’s most populous Muslim majority nation when the country was on high alert following the arrest of the leader of the Southeast Asian militant group Jemaah Islamiyah, which many nations have labeled a terrorist group.
Indonesia has been fighting militants since the bombings on the holiday island of Bali in 2002. 202 people were killed, mainly foreign tourists. Attacks on foreigners have largely been replaced in recent years by smaller, less deadly strikes against the government, police and counter-terrorism forces, as well as by militants who are considered infidels.
President Joko Widodo condemned the attack on Sunday, saying it had nothing to do with any religion as all religions would not tolerate any terrorism.
“I urge people to remain calm during the service because the state guarantees that you can worship without fear,” Widodo said in a televised address.
He offered his prayers to the injured and said the government would pay all medical expenses. He said he had ordered the national police chief to investigate the attack and take action against militant networks that may be involved.
At the end of the Palm Sunday Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica, which opened the Holy Week ceremonies in the Vatican, Pope Francis invited prayers for the victims of violence. He quoted in particular “those of the attack that took place this morning in Indonesia in front of Makassar Cathedral”.
At least 20 people were injured in the attack and taken to hospitals for treatment, said Mohammad Mahfud, the coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs.
“The perpetrators or terrorist groups behind this attack are still being prosecuted,” said Mahfud.
Indonesian National Police spokesman Argo Yuwono said police are still trying to identify the two attackers on the motorcycle and determine whether they are affiliated with a local partner of the banned Jemaah Islamiyah network or acting independently.
The Indonesian armed forces arrested the group’s leader, Aris Sumarsono, also known as Zulkarnaen, in December. Last month, the country’s anti-terrorist force arrested around 64 suspects, including 19 in Makassar, after reports of possible attacks against police and places of worship were given.
While Jemaah Islamiyah has been weakened by persistent crackdown over the past decade, a new threat has emerged in recent years against militants who fought with the Islamic state group in Iraq and Syria and returned to Indonesia or from the group’s attacks abroad were inspired.
The last major attack by Indonesia was in May 2018 when two families in Surabaya, the second largest city, carried out a series of suicide attacks on churches that killed a dozen people, including two young girls whose parents they had participated in one of the attacks. Police said the father was the head of a local member of the Islamic State Group known as Jemaah Anshorut Daulah.
Karmini reported from Jakarta, Indonesia.