‘Unchecked Extremism’ behind Attacks on Churches in Indonesia

Christians, moderate Muslims blame growth of Islamism under ‘weak’ government.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, August 17 (CDN) — 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 http://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.


Powerful Minority

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.

Report from Compass Direct News

Muslim Protestors Surround Worshipers in Bekasi, Indonesia

Tensions mount as congregation asserts right to worship.

DUBLIN, August 4 (CDN) — Around 300 Muslim protestors and 300 police officers surrounded members of the Batak Christian Protestant Church (Huria Kristen Batak Protestan or HKBP) on Sunday (Aug. 1) as they worshiped in an open field in Ciketing, Bekasi, local sources said.

“There were many police on guard, but the attackers were able to get very close to the congregation,” Theophilus Bela, president of the Jakarta Christian Communication Forum, said in a statement to international government and advocacy groups. “We are afraid that they will attack the church again next Sunday.”

He added that a protestor hit the Rev. Luspida Simanjuntak on the cheek.

Police held back the shouting protestors while the church worshiped, but at one point they allowed Murhali Barda, leader of the Front Pembela Islam (FPI or Islamic Defenders Front) in Bekasi, through the cordon for an angry confrontation with church leaders, Voice of America (VOA) reported.

Bekasi police commander Imam Sugianto told VOA that his forces were there to protect “both sides.”

The New York Times quoted Sugianto as saying that, “If the local people don’t give their permission, they can’t worship here,” but Pastor Simanjuntak said the Bekasi administration had approved the church’s decision to meet in the field, according to The Jakarta Globe.

“We demand the Bekasi administration to let the public know that they gave us the green light to conduct our prayers here,” Pastor Simanjuntak reportedly said.

The 1,500-strong congregation, established some 15 years ago, initially met in each other’s homes before purchasing a residential property in the Pondok Timur housing complex in Bekasi for use as a worship building. The group then met in the building while they waited for local officials to respond to a building permit application filed in 2006.

When Muslim neighbors in December objected to the meetings in the housing complex on the grounds that the church had no permit, officials banned church members from meeting there. As the local government had delayed the processing of its application for a building permit, the church ignored the ban, leading officials to seal the building on June 20.

Bekasi Mayor Mochtar Mohammad on July 9 said he would allow the congregation to meet in public areas or at the city hall, according to the Globe. Pastor Simanjuntak chose to move to the proposed building site, and Sunday meetings at the field in Ciketing were soon greeted by crowds of protestors.

The FPI’s Barda said the church’s insistence on worshipping at the site was a provocation, according to VOA. He also accused Christians in Bekasi of attempting to convert Muslims away from their religion, citing a recent Internet report claiming that the Mahanaim Foundation, a local Christian charity, had carried out a mass baptism of new converts.

Foundation spokeswoman Marya Irawan, however, told The Jakarta Post that the crowds were not baptized but only invited to Mahanaim leader Henry Sutanto’s home as part of an effort to reach out to the poor.

Pastor Simanjuntak’s church has now filed a case against the Bekasi administration.

“I fully support any efforts to take this to the courts,” a local Christian leader who preferred to remain unnamed told Compass. “We need to respond through legal channels and let the government know that these attacks are a gross human rights violation.”

Hard-line Islamic groups held a congress in Bekasi on June 20, and on June 27 announced their united intent to combat the “Christianization” of the region. (See http://www.compassdirect.org, “Indonesian Muslims Call for Halt to ‘Christianization,’” July 2.)

Bonar Tigor Naipospos, spokesman for Indonesia’s Institute for Peace and Democracy (Setara), told VOA that unsubstantiated rumors about Christians using deceptive practices to convert Muslims have fueled the anger in Bekasi. He reportedly said that Muslims believe that Christians badger people to convert and entice them with money, food or other incentives.

Pastor Simanjuntak has said that she and her church will continue meeting in the field, as they have nowhere else to go.

Report from Compass Direct News