‘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

Hundreds Injure Church Members in Bekasi, Indonesia

Police barricade ineffective; church leaders demand a suitable venue for worship.

DUBLIN, August 9 (CDN) — Leaders of a church in West Java, Indonesia demanded justice from police after a fifth attack from Muslim protestors left at least a dozen people injured yesterday.

As some 20 members of the Batak Christian Protestant Filadelfia Church (HKBP Filadelfia) in Bekasi gathered for Sunday worship on a church-owned plot of land in Ciketing, at least 300 members of the Islamic People’s Forum (FUI) and the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) broke through a police barricade and ordered them to leave, Theophilus Bela, president of the Jakarta Christian Communication Forum, told Compass. When the church members refused, the protestors assaulted the group with sticks, stones
or their bare hands.

A report in The Jakarta Post reported that as many as 700 protestors took part in the attack on the congregation, which numbers 1,500 in total. A video clip of the attack shown on local broadcasting network Metro Treve confirmed only that a large and physically aggressive mob was present at the site.

Indra Listiantara, a researcher with the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, said local residents identified the attackers as members of the FPI who had already attacked the church on previous occasions, including Bekasi FPI leader Murhali Barda, according to The Jakarta Globe.

When church members decided to leave, the mob “hunted us down and hit us,” church leader Hendrik Siagian told local news magazine Tempo.

Those injured included church member Franky Taumbunan, 26, who was kicked several times while he attempted to protect his elderly father. Berliana Sinaga, 22, suffered bruising after several men hit her in the head and face, the Post reported.

Several church members required medical attention, Bela confirmed.

Police chief Iman Sugianto, however, said he blamed the church members as he had warned them not to hold services in the area because they were disturbing the residents, according to the Post.

The church has filed charges against the FUI and FPI for assault and defiling a religion, the Globe reported yesterday (Aug. 8). The Rev. Luspida Simanjuntak also demanded that the Bekasi administration offer the church an alternative venue.

Church members only resorted to worshiping on the plot of land in Ciketing after officials sealed a house used for worship in the Pondok Timur housing complex in Jejalen Jaya sub-district, Bekasi, Bela said.

The church purchased a plot of land in Ciketing in 1998 and began to construct a church there after gathering consent from 200 local residents and local officials; a 500-strong mob, however, burned down the partially-completed building in November 2000, he said.

In June 2007, the church purchased a house in the Pondok Timur housing estate for use as a temporary place of worship while they submitted a formal application to construct a church building in Ciketing. The application, however, remained unanswered for more than a year, while radicals stepped up their protests against the use of the house in Pondok Timur.

In October 2009, the church secured permission from the chief of Jejalen Jaya sub-district to hold services on the plot of land in Ciketing. The group then built a small structure there to store items such as tables and chairs.

Following protests in Ciketing, local authorities sent an official letter to the church rejecting their building application, Bela said. When church members continued to meet at the house in Pondok Timur, authorities also sealed that building in June.

Following an appeal from church members, Bekasi Mayor Mochtar Mohammad then reportedly promised to let the group meet in public areas and agreed to send police to safeguard church activities. (See http://www.compassdirect.org, “Muslim Protestors Surround Worshipers in Bekasi, Indonesia,” Aug. 4.)

But Christians and Muslims alike have questioned the sincerity of such promises. Yesterday’s attack came just one day after Jakarta Gov. Fauzi Bowo and Jakarta Police Chief Timur Pradopo attended the 12th anniversary celebrations of the Muslim extremist FPI. On Friday (Aug. 6), an FPI leader also visited Jakarta police headquarters to offer the Front’s assistance in enforcing religious bylaws during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the Post reported today.

Following weekend attacks on the Bekasi church and on a congregation of the Ahmaddiyah, a Muslim sect, moderate Muslims flooded social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook with criticism of the FPI, demanding that the government take action to prevent further violence.

In an effort to resolve the issue, church members plan to hold their next Sunday service in front of the State Palace, said Judianto Simanjuntak, one of several church legal advisors, the Post reported today.

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


Officials question Christian teacher whose alleged comment was said to trigger violence.

AMBON, Indonesia, December 17 (Compass Direct News) – Government officials in Central Maluku, Indonesia, yesterday promised to reconstruct before Christmas two church buildings and a number of houses set ablaze last week during sectarian rioting in Letwaru village, Masohi district.

The promises came after hundreds of activists from a local youth organization protested in the streets of nearby Ambon on Monday (Dec. 15), holding these officials responsible for failing to maintain law and order, local media reported.

Also on Monday, police formally questioned a Christian elementary schoolteacher accused of making an anti-Islamic comment. Welhelmina Holle has been accused of insulting Islam while tutoring one of her students; following the Nov. 23 distribution of a flyer expressing the allegation against the schoolteacher, around 500 protestors gathered outside the education agency office and police headquarters on Dec. 9, and the protest quickly escalated into a full-scale riot.

Enraged Muslims destroyed 69 buildings, including two church buildings of a single congregation, 42 homes owned by Christians, four shops and a village hall. They also inadvertently struck 16 homes owned by Muslims.

Several people, including a police officer who attempted to stop the mob, were wounded during the rampage, according to Christian support organization Open Doors.

The time that lapsed between the Nov. 23 flyer and the Dec. 9 rioting shows that police were lax, said pastor Maureen Latuihamallo Ferdinandus, head of the Maluku Protestant Church (GPM) in Letwaru.

“The blasphemy issues had been spread since Nov. 23 – the time span until the day of the riot, Dec. 9, was long enough,” she said. “Yet police failed to anticipate the big protests and village rampage.”


Reconstruction, Relief Efforts

“We are committed to finishing the reconstruction of homes and churches before Christmas, so Christians won’t have to celebrate it in temporary shelters,” regency head Abdullah Tuasikal told The Jakarta Post yesterday.

Tuasikal had asked all construction workers in the area to participate in reconstruction efforts, while provincial and regency administrations allocated 2 billion rupiah (US$181,000) to the project.

The rebuilding of Syiloam Church began on Saturday (Dec. 13). Officials also promised to replace 200 chairs burned in the attack.

At press time, relief was trickling through to 1,764 people displaced by the riots, 1,523 Christians and 241 Muslims. The whereabouts of another 200 people are unknown.

Letwaru village, with a predominantly Christian population, borders a Muslim village with a narrow street separating both communities. When rioting broke out, the mob unknowingly attacked 16 homes occupied by Muslims on the Letwaru side of the street.

Critics say that government relief is far from adequate. Pastor Ferdinandus said displaced villagers desperately needed food and water, clothes, stoves and cooking utensils. Water was the first priority, as supplies were limited in the police station and prison that had provided temporary housing to some of the villagers.

Most of the displaced Christians took refuge in their relatives’ homes in neighboring villages, while Muslim victims opted to stay with relatives in the nearby town of Masohi.

“We’ve faced difficulties in identifying the needs of the displaced people since they are scattered,” Ferdinandus told Compass.

Last Friday (Dec. 12), three days after the riots, the streets of Letwaru were deserted. Few Christians dared venture out to the office or market; one resident told Compass that she had not yet returned to her office because “it’s not safe yet.” Life continued as normal, however, in downtown Masohi, an area where most residents are Muslims.

Maluku police chief Brig. Gen. Mudji Waluyo told The Jakarta Post that he would assign two-thirds of the Central Maluku police force to maintain security in the area during Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations, in addition to military troops.

Police have named Asmara Wasahua, Muhammad Patty – and Holle, the schoolteacher – as suspects in the riot. According to local media reports, police have accused Wasahua, a local candidate of the Islamic Justice and Welfare Party, of distributing hate flyers and mobilizing the protestors.


Discouraging Retaliation

Ferdinandus has urged her congregation in Letwaru not to retaliate, despite personal losses. “Up to now, none of our congregation has fought back,” she told Compass.

She said she believed that the riot was planned in advance.

“We were caught by surprise,” she said. “The assailants, on the other hand, looked as if they had carefully prepared for the attack.”

According to the pastor, the long-term education of Christian children who had until last week attended schools in Muslim neighborhoods would “definitely be disrupted” because of the riots.

When asked about the possibility of another large-scale religious conflict, Ferdinandus said the incident was not purely religious, but that certain groups had used the accusations against teacher Holle “as a political vehicle” to further their own interests. She added however, that “riots like these can start and end anytime. Things become very unpredictable.”

Ferdinandus also felt police should have dealt swiftly with the allegations against Holle before offended parties took to the streets.

According to Open Doors, in May a mob attacked another Christian village in Maluku, killing three people and destroying 116 homes.

These incidents, though isolated, suggest ongoing tension between Christian and Muslim communities in the Maluku islands, where violent religious conflict between 1999 and 2002 claimed at least 7,000 lives.  

Report from Compass Direct News