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Muslim Mob Burns Churches in Indonesia

Indonesian youths gather outside the church that was attacked by Muslim hardliners in Temanggung, Central Java, Indonesia, February 8, 2011

A hardline Muslim mob clashed with police and burned two churches in Indonesia Tuesday to protest what they considered a too-lenient sentence given a Christian for blaspheming against Islam.

The U.S. ambassador in Jakarta expressed concern about the burnings and also deplored an earlier mob attack on a minority Muslim sect in which three people were stabbed and beaten to death.

The Christian, 58-year-old Antonius Bawengan, was given the maximum five-year sentence Tuesday on charges of distributing books and literature that allegedly spread hatred about Islam.

But a crowd estimated at more than 1,000 people attacked police with stones outside the courthouse in central Java, saying the man should have received a death penalty. The mob then set two churches on fire, burning the roofs, and damaged a third.

A day earlier, international human rights and religious rights groups demanded that Indonesia investigate a brutal attack Sunday on members of the Ahmadiyah Islamic sect.

A mob set on the group with machetes and planks as they sheltered in the house of a sect leader in western Java. A video has appeared on the Internet showing the attack, in which three people were killed and eight received injuries requiring hospital treatment.

In a statement posted on the U.S. Embassy website in Jakarta Tuesday, Ambassador Scot Marciel said the United States "joins the vast majority of Indonesians" in deploring the violence. He encouraged the Indonesian government to continue to foster tolerance and protect the rights of all communities.

Rights groups have urged the government to lift a decree issued in 2008 banning members of the group from spreading their beliefs, which hold that Mohammed is not the last prophet. They say the decree has just provided an excuse for attacks on the group.

Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, has a reputation for religious tolerance. But small hard-line factions have been growing increasingly aggressive in recent years.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP and AP.