| Children in Santa Clause outfits tour Bethlehem on Christmas eve. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat will not be able to attend midnight mass at the Church of the Nativity for the second year as Israel maintained its ban on him travelling to the city of Christ’s birth. Israeli troops, however, pulled back to allow Christmas celebrations, dampened by renewed violence. (AFP)
Singapore, Dec. 24 (Reuters): Christians in Asia were on their guard and locals and Western expatriates were wary as the Christmas holiday season kicked off today amid new fears of attacks by Islamic radicals.
Britain warned its citizens to avoid churches in Indonesia, forces were on heightened alert in Australia and in Hong Kong, police set up more barricades outside nightspots in Singapore and shoppers in the Philippines were frisked for explosives.
With memories of the October Bali bombings and the almost 200 fatalities still fresh across the region, authorities made it clear they would be taking no chances over the Christmas and New Year period.
Indonesia, which is hoping to avoid a repeat of a series of Christmas-eve bombings two years ago that killed 19 people, has deployed 200,000 police to protect churches and other popular spots.
But Britain warned again of terror attacks in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, telling its citizens to avoid places of worship there. Local Christians, who make up some 10 per cent of the 210 million population, also said they would be wary.
“We have heard that this Christmas eve, churches will be turned into firecrackers,” said Father Yoakim Ndelo of the Sacred Family church in a Jakarta suburb. But he said no members had said they would not attend services despite security fears.
Australia’s foreign affairs department re-issued an alert, saying past bombings timed to coincide with Christmas suggested Australians ought to keep away from Indonesia.
In the Philippines, Asia’s largest Catholic nation but vulnerable to attacks by Islamic militants and leftwing rebels, people said they were taking the security frisks outside shopping malls and other precautions in stride.
“I don’t think it’s really that big a deal,” Alexandra Faustman, a marketing manager, said.
In Singapore, where security has been tight since 9/11, police erected new barricades last week at a popular outdoor eating centre that attracts large crowds.
Soldiers will guard Changi international airport, a major regional hub, over the holidays.
In Pakistan, police stepped up security at churches and in Christian neighbourhoods in Islamabad and Karachi. “We are on red alert. We have deployed about 1,000 extra police in Karachi for the protection of Christian areas and churches,” said police chief Tariq Jameel.