Islamic Groups in Indonesia Demonstrate against Worship in Mall

Permission for church services in shopping center not necessary, rights advocates say.

JAKARTA, Indonesia, December 2 (CDN) — After closing churches in West Java, South Sulawesi, Sumatra, and other provinces, hard-line Islamic organizations are now attempting to stop Christian worship in or near shopping malls.

Dozens of people from Islamic organizations demonstrated in front of the Gandaria City Mall in south Jakarta on Nov. 19, protesting worship of an unnamed church at the shopping center. After about an hour, mall management in the presence of the sector police chief spoke with demonstrators, who said they opposed the services because there is a Quranic boarding school nearby.

“In front of the mall is a Quranic school that has been there for dozens of years,” said demonstrator Hamdani, according to Poskota newspaper.

The head of the mall, identified only as Ridwan, denied that there was any church or worship service there. He told Poskota that the demonstrators were misinformed and that he had resolved the matter with them.

Jeirry Sumampouw, executive secretary of the diakonia department of the Indonesian Fellowship of Churches, said that no one has the right to forbid worship in a mall. He said a mall is a public space that can be used for any purpose, including worship.

“A mall is multifunctional and can be used in any manner, as long as it is good and doesn’t disturb things,” he said. “The government must be firm with demonstrators who tried to forbid worship services at Gandaria City Mall, because if nothing is done, this can spread to other places.”

The difficulty of getting building permits for churches has caused an increase of worship in malls, Sumampouw said.

“Because of this, many churches are using malls as places of worship,” he said.

He said the state should protect every citizen that worships, especially those in malls or shopping centers.

“Mall managers are often frightened so much that they will forbid worship activities in their malls,” he added.

Citing the Quranic school as a reason to forbid worship at the Gandaria City Mall is without legal basis and highly subjective, Sumampouw said. Raw emotion without consideration of justice motivates those who wish to stop Christian worship, he said, adding that they merely oppose any appearance of Christianity.

“Remember, this is not a country of one religion only,” he said. “These motives are wrong. The reasons to forbid worship are fabricated.”

Sumampouw said opponents’ motives go beyond mere anti-Christian sentiment – there are hoodlums who are intolerant of minority religions, including those who extort money, seize land, and oppose Christians because of personal grievances.

Saor Siagian, coordinator of the Religious Freedom Defense Team, said that Islamic prohibition of worship in malls urgently needed to be addressed.

“If demonstrators are able to prohibit worship activities, it means that they are able to forbid constitutional rights of citizens, because the constitution states that every citizen is free to practice his faith,” he said.

Forcing worship to stop, Siagian said, not only violates the constitution but is also a criminal offense.

“Because of this, the police must act decisively,” he said.

Demonstrators must understand their rights and responsibilities as citizens, he said, because no one has the right to forbid people to practice their faith in Indonesia.

“Because of this, I urge any Christian congregation that is the object of a demonstration to report it to police and lodge a complaint that there is a threat of force,” he said. “It is also fair to see if the demonstrators have a permit or have notified police. There should be no illegal demonstrations.”

Siagian advised all congregations that as citizens they must not give in to vigilantes, including “anyone wearing a robe,” a reference to Muslim extremists from the Islamic Defenders Front and other hard-line groups that wear long white robes.

There is no need to obtain a permit to worship in a mall under Indonesian law, he said. If a worship service took place at Gandaria City Mall, Saor said, the congregation could continue to meet there.

“If a congregation bows to the wishes of a mob, then it is the same as vigilante rule, which violates the constitution,” he said.

Mall managers are not obliged to reject Christian worship, he said, because Article 28 of the 1945 Constitution states that every citizen is free to worship. Siagian added that if Christians were forbidden to worship once a week in a mall, then demonstrators need to be consistent and press for a ban of all forms of worship at malls, including Islamic prayers said five times a day.

“Those would also need to be forbidden,” he said.

Bonar Tigor Naipospos, vice president of the Setara Institute for Justice and Peace, said he was surprised at opposition to worship at Gandaria City Mall. Malls are public spaces where many different activities may take place, he said.

“Because it’s a public space, there is no relationship between permits and worship,” he said. “It’s different if you want to erect a church [building] on your own property.”

Naipospos said churches are meeting in malls because obtaining permits is so difficult. The government and the Interfaith Harmony Forum should quickly resolve the conflict, he said.

“I fear that this incident will become a model that will be imitated by intolerant gangs in other places,” he said.

The demonstrators’ reasoning that worship cannot be held because of the nearby Quranic school is not rational, Naipospos said. Because a mall is a public place, he said, it is not beholden to any particular community or religion.

If there happened to be a worship service in Gandaria Mall, Bonar would urge them to continue meeting.

“Let’s not bow to any intolerant hoodlums,” he said. “We don’t need to worry.”

Report from Compass Direct News


Islamic-based legislation may be a key issue in this year’s elections.

DUBLIN, February 2 (Compass Direct News) – As candidates hit the campaign trail in preparation for Indonesia’s presidential election in July, rights groups have voiced strong opposition to an increasing number of sharia-inspired laws introduced by local governments. They say the laws discriminate against religious minorities and violate Indonesia’s policy of Pancasila, or “unity in diversity.”

With legislative elections coming in April and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono likely to form a coalition with several Islamic parties for the July presidential election, such laws could become a key campaign issue.

Although Aceh is the only province completely governed by sharia (Islamic law), more than 50 regencies in 16 of 32 provinces throughout Indonesia have passed laws influenced by sharia. These laws became possible following the enactment of the Regional Autonomy Law in 2000.

The form of these laws varies widely. Legislation in Padang, West Sumatra, requires both Muslim and non-Muslim women to wear headscarves, while a law in Tangerang allows women found “loitering” alone on the street after 10 p.m. to be arrested and charged with prostitution. Other laws include stipulations for Quran literacy among schoolchildren and severe punishment for adultery, alcoholism and gambling.

“Generally the legal system regulates and guarantees religious freedom of Indonesian citizens … but in reality, discrimination prevails,” a lawyer from the legal firm Eleonora and Partners told Compass.

Some regencies have adopted sharia in a way that further marginalizes minority groups, according to Syafi’I Anwar, executive director of the International Center for Islam and Pluralism.

“For instance, the Padang administration issued a law requiring all schoolgirls, regardless of their religion, to wear the headscarf,” he told the International Herald Tribune. This is unacceptable because it is not in line with the pluralism that the constitution recognizes.”

Freedom of religion is guaranteed by Article 29 of the country’s constitution, he added. “Therefore the government must assist all religious communities to practice their beliefs as freely as possible and take actions against those who violate that right.”

While Indonesia’s largest Muslim group, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), has publicly denounced the implementation of such laws, other groups actively support them. The Committee for the Implementation and Maintenance of Islamic Law (KPPSI) has held several congresses in Makassar, South Sulawesi with the goal of passing sharia-inspired legislation and obtaining special autonomy for the province, similar to that in Aceh.

KPPSI has also encouraged members to vote for politicians who share their goals, according to local news agency Komintra.


‘Threatening’ Decision

In February of last year, Home Affairs Minister Mardiyanto declared that the government saw no need to nullify some 600 sharia-inspired laws passed by local governments. His announcement came after a group of lawyers in June 2007 urged the government to address laws that discriminated against non-Muslims.

Moderates were alarmed at Mardiyanto’s decision, fearing it would encourage other jurisdictions to pass similar laws. Last August, Dr. Mohammad Mahfud, newly re-elected as head of the Constitutional Court, slammed regional administrations for enacting sharia-inspired laws.

“[These] laws are not constitutionally or legally correct because, territorially and ideologically, they threaten our national integrity,” he told top military officers attending a training program on human rights, according to The Jakarta Post.

Mahfud contended that if Indonesia allowed sharia-based laws, “then Bali can pass a Hindu bylaw, or North Sulawesi can have a Christian ordinance. If each area fights for a religious-based ordinance, then we face a national integration problem.” According to Mahfud, sharia-based laws would promote religious intolerance and leave minority religious groups without adequate legal protection.

Under the 2000 Regional Autonomy Law, the central government has the power to block provincial laws but showed little willingness to do so until recently when, bowing to pressure from advocacy groups, it pledged to review 37 sharia-based ordinances deemed discriminatory and at odds with the constitution.

Such reviews are politically sensitive and must be done on sound legal grounds, according to Ridarson Galingging, a law lecturer in Jakarta.

“Advocates of sharia-based laws will stress the divine origin of sharia and resist challenges [that are] based on constitutional or human rights limits,” he told The Jakarta Post. “They maintain that sharia is authorized directly by God, and political opposition is viewed as apostasy or blasphemy.”


Empowering Vigilantes

A national, sharia-inspired bill regulating images or actions deemed pornographic sparked outrage when presented for a final vote in October last year. One fifth of the parliamentarians present walked out in protest, leaving the remainder to vote in favor of the legislation.

The bill provided for up to 15 years of prison and a maximum fine of US$1.5 million for offenders.

“This law will only empower vigilante groups like the Islamic Defender’s Front (FPI),” Eva Sundari, a member of the Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP) told reporters. FPI is widely-regarded as a self-appointed moral vigilante group, often raiding bars and nightclubs, but also responsible for multiple attacks on churches.

“Many of the members are preparing for elections and looking for support among the Islamic community,” she added. “Now they can point to this law as evidence that they support Islamic values.”

Although several Golkar Party politicians support sharia-based laws, senior Golkar Party member Theo Sambuaga has criticized politicians for endorsing such legislation to win support from Muslim voters. Several major parties openly back sharia laws, including the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), the United Development Party, and the Crescent Star party.


Key Election Issue

Sharia-based laws may become an even hotter election issue this year as a change to the voting system means more weight will be given to provincial candidates.

Political analysts believe Yudhoyono must form a coalition with most if not all of the country’s Islamic parties in order to win a majority vote against the Golkar party, allied for this election with former president Megawati Sukarnoputri’s PDIP.

The coalition Yudhoyono could form, however, likely would come with strings attached. As Elizabeth Kendal of the World Evangelical Alliance wrote in September 2008, “The more the president needs the Islamists, the more they can demand of him.”

In 2004, Yudhoyono partnered with the NU-sponsored National Awakening Party, the National Mandate Party (founded by the Islamic purist organization Muhammadiyah) and the PKS to achieve his majority vote. Analysts predict PKS will again be a key player in this election.

Few realize, however, that PKS draws its ideology from the Muslim Brotherhood, a group formed in Egypt in 1928 with a firm belief in Islamic world dominance. Crushed by the Egyptian government in the 1960s, members of the Brotherhood fled to Saudi Arabia, where they taught in the nation’s universities – influencing the future founders of Al Qaeda, Hamas, and Sudan’s National Islamic Front.

The Brotherhood took root at a university in Bandung, West Java in the 1970s in the form of Tarbiyah, a secretive student movement that eventually morphed into the Justice Party (JP) in 1998. Winning few votes, JP allied itself with a second party to form the PKS prior to the 2004 elections.

Since then, PKS has gained widespread support and a solid reputation for integrity and commitment to Islamic values. Simultaneously, however, PKS leaders are vocal supporters of Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, leader of the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

Sadanand Dhume, writing in the Far Eastern Economic Review, says the two organizations have much in common. In its founding manifesto, PKS calls for the creation of an Islamic caliphate. Unlike JI, however, “the party can use its position in Parliament and its … network of cadres to advance the same goals incrementally, one victory at a time.”  

Report from Compass Direct News