Indonesian school bill rekindles religious rancor

The harmonious relations developed before and during the invasion of Iraq by the United States and its allies seem destined to be short-lived for Muslims and Christians in Indonesia, the world's biggest predominantly Muslim country.

A controversial national education-system bill, which the House of Representatives (DPR) plans to endorse on May 20, has once again put Muslims and Christians on a collision course, raising fears of renewed bloody religious conflicts that could lead to territorial disunity.

The bill requires both state and private schools to teach religion to their students. It also states that religious lessons have to be taught by teachers of the same religion as the students. If enacted, the bill basically will oblige Christian schools to hire Muslim religious teachers if they accept Muslim students or Muslim schools to provide Christian religious teachers if they have Christian students in their classes.

Although the bill recommends no punishment for non-complying schools, Christian schools and experts have strongly opposed the bill. Christian schools, which in Indonesia are known for their high standard of education and strong discipline, attract thousands of Muslim children every year. And in some places, including the capital Jakarta and other big cities across the archipelago, Christian schools - both Catholic and Protestant - have more Muslim students than Christians. These Muslim students usually come from well-to-do families in which one or both parents went to Christian schools for their primary or secondary education.

Under the pretext of carrying out a religious mission, Christian schools require all students - be they Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, or Christians - to attend religious classes, which means Catholicism for Catholic schools and Protestantism for Protestant schools. Usually, these schools require the parents of non-Christian children to sign a letter of consent - stating that they have no objections to their children attending Christian classes - when they enroll. Failing or refusing to sign the letter means their children cannot study in Christian schools.

Such a policy, however, is not a monopoly of Christian schools. Muslim schools also require Christian students to take Islamic classes, including the recital of the Koran. Non-Muslim parents are asked to sign a letter of consent if they enroll their children at Muslim schools. The chance of Christians enrolling at Muslim schools, however, is very slim, as most Muslim schools are not up to the standard of most Christian schools.

Given the situation, it is no wonder that the education bill has drawn two different, opposing reactions. Christians have rejected the bill, while Muslim communities have generally welcomed the draft and called for its early endorsement. Street rallies for and against the bill have become regular features of big cities across the country. In big cities such as Jakarta and Surabaya in East Java, Christians and Muslims take turns demonstrating in front of the DPR or local legislature, calling for either the scrapping or endorsement of the bill.

admitted that proponents of the draft aimed at exerting influence over Christian schools, where children of most high-ranking government officials enroll. Muslim hardliners have long harbored the suspicion that those Christian schools are part of what they consider as Christianization of Indonesia. Christians also suspect that the bill is part of efforts by Muslim hardliners to turn Indonesia into an Islamic country after they failed to insert the word syariah or Islamic law in the amendment of the 1945 constitution last year. Indeed, major proponents of the bill are Muslim-based political parties, some of which have publicly declared that the controversial education bill was a tradeoff after they agreed not to include syariah in the amendment to the constitution.

The suspicions are so intense that some Christian-dominated provinces such as East Nusa Tenggara, North Sulawesi, Maluku, and Papua have threatened to wage wars for independence if the DPR goes ahead with its plan to endorse the bill on May 20. But so far, legislators have refused to change articles in the bill requiring religious classes in schools.

Indonesians in general are still nursing the wounds inflicted by prolonged religious conflicts that broke out almost immediately after the downfall of the dictator Suharto in 1998. In Maluku province, where more than 10,000 people have been killed after bloody conflicts between Christians and Muslims broke out in January 1999, security authorities are striving to restore order. Peace remains shaky, with conflicts and bombings still taking place in the archipelagic province. The government, however, is now facing new problems in the province, including a secessionist movement called the South Maluku Republic (RMS) that has intensified its campaign for independence.

The situation is pretty much the same in Poso, Central Sulawesi, another site of religious conflicts. More than 2,000 innocent people have been killed in Poso since bloody conflicts between Christians and Muslims started in late 2000. Peace and order had slowly returned to the area, but not until security authorities deployed thousands of troops there.

Against this background, some quarters in society, including moderate Muslim groups, are wondering why the DPR insists on endorsing the education bill. Two nationalist factions - President Megawati Sukarnoputri's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI Perjuangan) and House Speaker Akbar Tanjung's Golkar - have unexpectedly thrown their support behind the controversial bill. PDI Perjuangan and Golkar account for more than 50 percent of seats in the House. Speculations are running high that the two factions have agreed to endorse the bill in order get the support of Muslim communities in next year's elections, when the country is to hold its first direct presidential election.

Whatever the political motive for endorsing the bill, the draft has in effect removed harmonious relations developed between Christians and Muslims that developed over their joint opposition to the Iraq war. Both sides now harbor suspicions against each other. With conflicts brewing in some Christian-dominated provinces, Indonesia is heading for more turbulence.

While the protests have generally been peaceful so far, suspicions are running high between Christian and Muslim communities. Christians suspect that the bill is targeted against Christian schools. Some legislators deliberating on the bill have