Merkel signals religious tolerance in Indonesia

Indonesia - Angela Merkel visits an Evangelical church in Jakarta and then Southeast Asia's largest mosque as a symbolic gesture of tolerance. But how harmonious is the inter-religious dialog in Indonesia?

A flood of women, singing and smiling, pour into the Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta to meet Chancellor Angela Merkel. Everyone wants to shake her hand.

This is Merkel's first visit to Indonesia as Chancellor. And there she stands in thin socks, marveling at the dome of the largest mosque in Southeast Asia with room for 120,000 worshipers.

Ninety percent of Indonesians are Muslim. No other country in the world has more. A visit to a mosque there is almost a must - even for Merkel, the daughter of an Evangelical minister.

Islamic democracy

But near the mosque is the Immanuel Protestant Church, which the Chancellor's visits first. In the packed colonial-style church, she speaks about her childhood in a Mecklenburg rectory. "We view Indonesia as a model of peaceful and tolerant development," she says.

The West often cites Indonesia as an example of an Islamic democracy - a bridge between Islam and Christianity. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised the country for this very reason on a visit in 2009. "If you want to know if Islam, democracy, modernity and women's rights can coexist, go to Indonesia," she said.

Since the collapse of the dictatorial Suharto regime in 1998, Indonesia has developed rapidly. Many point to the country's thriving economy, growing self-confidence and peaceful co-existence.

Others, however, have a less favorable view.

They're disappointed in the government, especially in President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono whom they consider a weak leader unable to make decisions. They also claim the government has taken a restrictive stance on religion.

Religious-motivated violence

"The government officially recognizes only six religions," says Elga Sarapung, director of the Institute DIAN/Interfidei. "But Indonesia has so many faiths. Why should we exclude so many?"

Religious-motivated violence has increased in recent years. Indonesia's Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace reported 216 cases in 2010 and 244 a year later. Humans Right Watch confirms the development. And the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington speaks of significant religious intolerance: nearly 80 of the Indonesians polled for a survey it conducted oppose inter-religious marriages.

Indonesians have a constitutional right to freedom of religion. But more and more churches are being closed. Some estimates put the number at more than 400 since President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono took office in 2004. The closings are often instigated by militant Islamists.

Shocking incident

And the courts often refer to the controversial blasphemy law to punish atheists, Christians or members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim reform movement. Only a few weeks ago, in fact, a court applied the law to sentence a young man to two and a half years of prison.

An especially shocking incident happened in February 2011 when 20 Ahmadiyyas were attacked on the Java peninsula by about 1,500 radicals. Three members died and five were severely injured.

The offenders were given light sentences. "This example clearly shows the government's weaknesses," says Barus Samsul Fata from the Wahid Institute in Jakarta.

The government seems paralyzed in battling the country's militant Islamists. But the number of these hardliners is actually not all that big, according to Sarapung. "They use the media to spread their views," she says. "That's why it looks as if they have so much control here."

Silent majority as a counterforce

Actually, Indonesia is considered a tolerant society. And many would agree that with its nearly 17,000 inhabited islands, more than 300 ethnic groups and nearly as many practiced faiths, it needs to be.

Like many Indonesians, Wahid Institute's Fata is counting on the silent majority to stand up to the hardliners. "Civil society can stop the hardliners," he says. "But if it recognizes the need to do so too late, everyone will suffer."