Jakarta, Indonesia - The country that is home to the world’s largest Muslim population celebrated its 65th Independence Day today amid a widespread sense of distrust in the government’s ability to check attacks on churches by Islamist groups.
Muslims and Islamic organizations, Buddhists and Hindus joined hundreds of Christians for an ecumenical worship service near National Monument Square in Jakarta to protest “government inaction” over attacks on Christians and “forced closure of churches,” reported The Jakarta Globe. They had planned to hold the service outside the State Palace, but the government prohibited it due to preparations for Independence Day celebrations, the daily reported.
“Why did it take President [Susilo Bambang] Yudhoyono so many days to speak against the attacks?” the Rev. Dr. SAE Nababan, president of the World Council of Churches from Asia, told Compass. “Such carelessness can be dangerous for our democracy. Officials must not forget that they are accountable to the people.”
Nababan was referring to President Yudhoyono’s call for religious harmony a day before the month-long Islamic festival of fasting, Ramadan, began here last Wednesday (Aug. 11). According to the Globe, it was the president’s “first public comment” addressing “a recent rash of violence against religious minorities.”
The president’s statement came after a fifth attack on the Batak Christian Protestant Filadelfia Church (HKBP Filadelfia) in Bekasi city, a suburb of Jakarta, on Aug. 8.
More than 300 members of the extremist Islamic People’s Forum (FUI) and Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) broke through a police barricade and injured at least a dozen people during the Sunday worship in a field. The church has faced attacks since November 2000, when it was constructing the church building. (See www.compassdirect.org, “Hundreds Injure Church Members in Bekasi, Indonesia,” Aug. 9)
Rising Christian Persecution
Endy Bayuni, former editor of The Jakarta Post, told Compass that churches were being attacked every week but that media were avoiding coverage because it is an “emotional and controversial issue.”
“You also risk being accused of taking sides when you report on religious conflicts,” he said, adding that Christians and the Ahmadiyya, a Muslim sect regarded as heretical because it does not believe that Muhammad was the last prophet, bear the brunt of Islamism in Indonesia.
A report by the Setara Institute for Peace and Democracy stated that violations of religious freedom of Christians had grown from previous years. It recorded at least 28 violations — mostly by Islamist groups – between January and July – up from 18 in 2009 and 17 in 2008.
The violations included forced closure of churches, revocation and delays in issuing building permits, and attacks such as torching and damaging churches. Political motives, economic interests involving illegal extortion, and ideological clashes of “intolerant groups” refusing the presence of those of a different religion impeded justice in most cases, noted the report.
Most Muslims in Indonesia are moderate and tolerant, said Nababan, former bishop of the HKBP Filadelfia church, but he added that the extremist minority poses a “great threat” to the nation.
“Extremism always starts in small numbers,” he said, alluding to alleged government inaction.
Dr. Musda Mulia, a Muslim research professor at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, told Compass all Indonesians have a right to freedom of faith.
“It seems the government doesn’t want to deal with the radicals,” she said. “Persecution of Christians and other minorities has been my concern for many years, but the government is very weak.”
Extremism in Indonesia, now a republic with a presidential system, dates back to the country’s struggle for independence, when Islamists called for an Islamic state. The Dutch transferred sovereignty to Indonesia in 1949 after an armed struggle.
Not heeding the Islamists’ call, the country’s leaders chose “Pancasila” as the official philosophical foundation comprising five principles: belief in the one and only God; just and civilized humanity; the unity of Indonesia; democracy guided by the inner wisdom in the unanimity arising out of deliberations among representatives; and social justice for all.
In line with Pancasila, “Unity in Diversity” (Bhinneka Tunggal Ika) became the official national motto of Indonesia. The Indonesian Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the government only recognizes six religions: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Protestantism, Catholicism, and Confucianism.
Indonesia, an archipelago of 17,508 islands – about 6,000 of which are inhabited – has around 300 distinct native ethnicities and 742 languages and dialects. Over 86 percent of the over 138 million Indonesians are Muslim. Christians are around 8 percent, Hindus 3 percent and Buddhist 1.8 percent.
Islamist militant groups remain active and growing and are still fighting pluralism. According to the Globe, police recently unearthed a terror plot against President Yudhoyono, “part of a larger trend as militant groups widened their targets from Westerners to include state officials” considered to be “symbols of secularism.” One of their aims was to “accelerate the transformation of the country’s democratic system into one controlled by Islamic law.”
In 2002, over 200 people (including 164 foreigners) were killed in a terror attack by Islamist militants in Kuta town on the island of Bali. Indonesia has also fought violent Islamist insurgents, such as in Aceh Province, which now has a special status and implements sharia (Islamic law).
Mulia of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, who is the first woman to obtain a doctorate degree in Islamic political thought, identified the FPI and the Forum Betawi Rempung (Betawi Brotherhood Forum or FBR) as two of the Islamist groups chiefly responsible for Christian persecution.
The FPI, a national-level organization infamous for vigilante violence and allegedly part of the al Qaeda network, was established on Aug. 17, 1998. The FBR, a similar group based in Jakarta, was formed to fight for the interests of the ethnic Betawi Muslims on July 29, 2001.
Both groups exist legally in the country.
In June, several Indonesian parliamentarians asked the government to ban the FPI, which “has threatened ‘war’ against Christians in Jakarta and urged mosques to set up militia forces,” reported the Globe on July 26. The government, however, thinks that banning such groups will only lead to re-formation of the same organizations under new names.
The deputy chairman of Setara, Bonar Tigor Naipospos, was quoted in the Post’s July 29 edition as saying that local administrations, especially in cities in West Java Province, see these groups “as assets for local elections.”
“They [local governments] bow to pressure from mass organizations that insist the churches’ presence and activities have caused unrest,” he reportedly said.
As for the national government, added Nababan of the World Council of Churches of Asia, “it is preoccupied with its free market economy and apparently has no time to uphold the Constitution.”
Church Building Permits
The sealing of churches and the refusal to grant building permits top the list of major violations of Christians’ religious rights in Indonesia, according to Setara. The Aug. 8 attack on the HKBP Filadelfia church was also rooted in denial of permit for constructing its church building.
Setara’s deputy chairman told the Post that churches in Jakarta mainly faced trouble in renovating and expanding their buildings, which require building permits.
“They have to start over again by obtaining 60 signatures from residents living around the church, and sometimes residents refuse to provide signatures,” he said. The Setara report recommended that President Yudhoyono review a 2006 joint ministerial decree that requires signatures from congregations and residents living nearby, as well as approval from the local administration, to build a house of worship.
According to Setara, at least three churches in east and south Jakarta were experiencing difficulties in obtaining permits for church building at press time.
Nababan complained that some local governments would not give permits for churches for years without stating any reason.
“If this current government can become courageous enough to prosecute those who break the law and allow religious freedom, including the freedom to construct churches where we live, there is hope for Indonesia,” added Nababan.
A Christian source who requested anonymity said he agreed that there was hope for minorities in Indonesia.
“Violent attacks awaken the silent majority, which then speaks up and holds the government accountable,” he said.