Indonesia's Christians Move ''Underground''

Amidst fears of bombings and shootings by Islamic militants, some Christians in Indonesia are trading in their traditional churches for more secure, though unorthodox, buildings. On any given Sunday, thousands of Christians flock to office buildings, shopping malls, hotels, and even movie theaters to worship.

"It puts us at a lower risk for being a target for religious persecution," said Pastor Steve Lunn, whose International English Service holds worship services for 1,000 people in a downtown Jakarta office building.

"People tell me they feel safer," Lunn told the Associated Press. "The facility itself is not the most important thing. It's just a place to gather. The most important thing is being together and worshipping God together."

Christian leaders also say the unorthodox approach is necessary because they cannot get building permits and that ignoring the rules risk having a facility shut down, or worse, destroyed by protesters. In addition, plans to build new churches sometimes draw violent protests from Islamic groups, which view them as an attempt to convert Muslims.

Although the vast majority of Muslims in the world's most populous Muslim nation practice a moderate version of the faith, attacks against Christians--who form just 8 percent of the population--have increased since ex-dictator Suharto's downfall in 1998, and amid a global rise in Islamic radicalism.

Last week, Indonesia began the biggest security operation in years after receiving information from the U.S. and Australia on possible terrorist attacks during the Christmas and New Year season on targets including international hotels. Authorities say between 140 and 200 thousand police officers will be deployed at churches, shopping malls and hotels where Westerners gather during the Christmas period. Church officials also say metal detectors will be in place for most services and armed escorts will accompany parishioners.

But still people are afraid, said Pastor Hengki Ompi, whose church was attacked earlier this month by suspected Muslim gunmen on the central Indonesian island of Sulawesi. "We hope the attacks stop so we can celebrate Christmas without fear."

The deadliest Christmas-related attacks in Indonesia occurred on Christmas Eve 2000 when at least 16 people were killed as Christians were targeted in 18 church bombings.