‘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


Alarmed by threatening strangers, wife and children of William Reyes leave Maicao.

INDIANAPOLIS, Indiana, June 24 (Compass Direct News) – The wife and children of pastor William Reyes, who was kidnapped last September in Colombia and is still missing, have moved from their home to another city due to threatening strangers presumably linked to his kidnappers.

Compass learned that Idia Miranda Reyes, her son William, 19, and daughters Luz Nelly, 17, and Estefania, 9, suddenly left their home in Maicao in the department (state) of La Guajira two months ago and moved to an undisclosed location in the country.

The Rev. William Reyes disappeared on Sept. 25, 2008, en route to Maicao from the neighboring city of Valledupar. Since March 2008, the pastor of Light and Truth Inter-American Church and active member of the Fraternity of Evangelical Pastors of Maicao, had been receiving extortion threats from illegal armed groups operating in the La Guajira peninsula.

Family members have not heard from Pastor Reyes since, nor have his abductors contacted the family to demand ransom.

Two incidents earlier this year alerted his wife that she and her children were in danger from the kidnappers. On Jan. 15, an unidentified man appeared at the Inter-American Church in Maicao and asked for Idia Miranda Reyes. When he was told she was not there, the man asked for her address and cell phone number, which church workers refused to give him.

Before he left, the man said testily, “It is in [her] best interest to get in touch with me, than for me to have to find her.”

Six days later, Luz Nelly Reyes was approached by a stranger on the street (the family believes it was the same man), who told her that if she wanted to see her father again, she should come with him. The girl declined the invitation. When he attempted to grab her by the arm, Luz Nelly fled.

“I have not reported this to police, because I’m afraid,” her mother told Compass after the incident. “They could do something to me.”

Through sobs she added, “We never conceived of this happening to us. I just wish they would tell us if they have him or not.”

Idia Miranda Reyes waited to leave Maicao until Luz Nelly completed her senior year in high school; the 17-year-old graduated on March 28. According to sources, the Inter-American church is contributing a modest living allowance to the Reyes family.

Reyes is not alone in her fears; Colombia suffers the highest incidence of kidnapping in the Western Hemisphere and a homicide rate 11 times greater than in the United States.

Due to general lawlessness, Colombians often face harassment from the same criminals who kidnap or murder loved ones. Violent crime is so common in the country that half of the felonies are not reported to police, and only one in nine makes the newspapers.

Another Maicao kidnapping in February underscores the problem. Armed men abducted a woman from a church just a few blocks from the Light and Truth church – while worship was in progress. The pastor of that church later refused to disclose the victim’s identity or discuss the circumstances of her disappearance, citing concerns for the safety of his congregation.

Evangelical Christians are not always passive victims of crime, however. Justapaz, a Mennonite Church-affiliated organization based in Bogotá, and The Commission for Restoration, Life and Peace of the Evangelical Council of Churches of Colombia (CEDECOL) have organized an international prayer and action campaign in response to the Reyes family crisis.

The campaign mobilized concerned citizens to petition the office of Attorney General Dr. Mario Iguarán, asking that authorities conduct a thorough investigation into Pastor Reyes’ disappearance and report their findings to Commission Coordinator Ricardo Esquivia and Jenny Neme, director of Justapaz.

“Despite hundreds of letters from church members in the United States, Canada and across Europe, and repeated attempts to get a response from the Colombian Attorney General´s Office, we have yet to receive any information from them regarding progress in the case,” said Michael Joseph, who coordinates the Reyes case on behalf of CEDECOL and Justapaz. “We’re doing our best to make sure Pastor Reyes’ case is not forgotten.”

The Reyes family joins other “internal refugees” who live as exiles in their own country. Unchecked political and social violence have forced innocent victims – many of them widows and children – to abruptly abandon homes and careers. They must take up life in crowded, far-off cities in order to protect themselves and their children from further attack.

According to estimates, Colombia now has 3 million internal refugees, the second largest population of displaced persons in the world after Sudan.

Report from Compass Direct News


Hindu extremists move to stop yuletide celebrations as suffering in Kandhamal continues.

NEW DELHI, December 3 (Compass Direct News) – Christians in Orissa state are anticipating Christmas with fear as Hindu extremists have called for a state-wide bandh, or forced shut-down on all sectors of society, on Dec. 25 – a move that could provide Hindu extremists the pretext for attacking anyone publicly celebrating the birth of Christ.

Last year one of the area’s worst spates of violence came during the Christmas season.

The state’s chief minister has said there should be no such shut-down but stopped short of prohibiting the Hindu extremists’ plan. The federal government has expressed its disapproval of the proposal, but the Hindu extremist umbrella organization Sangh Parivar has vowed to press ahead with the shut-down, reported newspaper Outlook India on Nov. 20.

Though such shut-downs were declared illegal by India’s Supreme Court in 1998, the president of the Laxmanananda Saraswati Condolence Society (SLSSS) sent a threatening notice to the Orissa government on Nov. 15, warning that the Hindu extremist group would impose a bandh on Christmas unless the state government arrested those who murdered Hindu leader Laxmanananda Sararawati on Aug. 23.

A Maoist group on Sept. 1 admitted killing Saraswati and four of his aides, and police on Oct. 6 confirmed that Maoists killed them, but the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP) has continued to blame local Christians for the assassinations, stoking anti-Christian sentiment that led to a wave of violent attacks for more than two months. At least 500 people, mostly Christians, were estimated to have been killed, according to a report by a Communist Party fact-finding team, and at least 4,500 houses and churches in Orissa’s Kandhamal district were destroyed.

Ratnakar Chaini, president of the SLSSS, has demanded the release of Hindu leaders arrested in connection with the killing of Christians in the violence following the assassination of Saraswati.

In a massive rally in Delhi on Nov. 15, Chaini called for the shut-down in order to ensure “a completely peaceful Christmas.”

The general secretary of the Christian Legal Association (CLA) took the Hindu extremist’s comment as sarcasm.

“How can they have a peaceful Christmas if there is a bandh?” Tehmina Arora told Compass. “There can be no celebration, no going out the house also. So there can be no question of peace.”

Inflammatory speeches at the rally by Chaini and other Hindu extremists against Christianity and its leaders in India led Christians to believe the shut-down would serve as the pretext for another spate of violence against those publicly celebrating the holiday.

The Hindu extremists’ rally also included pledges that all Christian converts would be “re-converted” to Hinduism.

“If Hindus decided to take on anyone to protect our religion and culture, then nothing can stop us,” Chaini said. “Unchecked conversions by churches would be opposed with tooth and nail.”

The Sangh Parivar, including the state unit of the VHP, said in a press statement that the government has been shielding those guilty of murdering Saraswati.


Prohibition Demanded

Archbishop of Cuttack-Bhubaneswar Raphael Cheenath told Compass that the intention of the Hindu nationalists in calling the shut-down was malicious and done for political advantage – a way of garnering tribal peoples’ support for Hindu nationalist candidates by setting up Christians as disobedient trouble-makers.

“If the government allows the bandh to take place on Christmas Day, it will mean that they are allowing more attacks and violence against the Christians,” said Archbishop Cheenath.

Violence has broken out against Christians on previous shut-downs in Kandhamal district.

“There is a great deal of apprehension, because it was on previous bandhs that there have been attacks against the Christian community,” said Arora of the CLA. “The district collector informed us that they were taking strong steps to ensure that the bandh would not be taking place. Unless the district collector and state administrator take serious steps to see that it is not enforced, it would again be a violent attack against the Christian community.”

Orissa church authorities headed by Archbishop Cheenath met a team of visiting government ministers on Nov. 19. Subsequently Christian leaders delivered a memorandum demanding the proposed shut-down be prohibited as illegal. The memorandum demanded the state punish the people and organizations involved in such activities.

The team of central government ministers visiting riot-hit areas on Nov. 19 advised the state chief minister to ensure that there be no shut-down on Christmas Day. Finding the Kandhamal situation tense and Christians fearful, the team leader, Union Agriculture Minister Sharah Pawar, said they requested Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik to see that the shut-down on Christmas Day does not take place.

“We don’t understand why Christmas was chosen for calling the bandh,” Pawar told Outlook India. “Agitation should not be allowed on major festival days like Diwali [a Hindu festival], Christmas and Chhath [a Muslim festival].”

Stating that the minority community is under tremendous pressure because of such a threat, Pawar reportedly said the need of the hour is to restore normalcy in the riot-affected areas.

“We have requested Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik to make efforts to stop such a bandh on Dec. 25, a major festival day,” Pawar told reporters after meeting with Patnaik.

Patnaik later said, “There should not be a bandh on Dec. 25,” but he made no appeal to the Sangh Parivar to refrain from the Christmas Day shut-down.

Church leaders also requested the ministers pressure the state government to put a halt to Hindu extremists forcing Christians, under threat of death, to convert to Hinduism. Christians are allowed to live in the district only if they became Hindu, they said.


Deaths Continue in Orissa

A Christian woman who had fled Hindu extremist violence was killed on Nov. 25 after leaving a relief camp to harvest her paddy.

Lalita Digal, 45, was murdered in Dobali village, Kandhamal district, where she was staying with a friend, reported the Evangelical Fellowship of India (EFI). She had returned to the village on Nov. 21. On Nov. 25 she was allegedly dragged from the house and murdered. No arrest had been made at press time, according to EFI.

The state administration has forced people to leave relief camps even though they have no homes to return to, according to a local Christian body. Representatives of the Kandhamal Christian Jankalyan Samaj (KCJS) said at a press conference this week that threats continue from Hindu nationalists demanding that frightened Christians “re-convert” to Hinduism.

Conditions at the camps remain poor. At Daringbadi camp, Leunsio Digal died on Nov. 24 due to lack of proper medication, EFI reported. He had been suffering a fever for a week without access to medications to alleviate it. Digal had served as catechist for 25 years at Simonbadi parish, in the archdiocese of Cuttack- Bhubaneswar.

On Nov. 22, Orissa police fired at two Christians in Kandhamal’s border village of Kutunniganda, killing one and severely injuring another, according to the Global Council of Indian Christians (GCIC).

Junesh Badaraita died on the spot. The injured Karnel Badaraita later told a television station that they were searching for lost cattle with a flashlight when police fired at them.

Police were combing the area in their hunt for a Naxalite (Maoists or Marxist-Leninist revolutionaries) Training Camp. Under Inspector-in-Charge Narbada Kiro, they reportedly fired at the two Christians from a distance of 350 meters.

Police claimed that the two Christians were Naxalites, though villagers refuted this assertion. In protest, the agitated villagers blocked a public road and kept government officials from arriving at their offices in the area.

At press time, the district administrator promised compensation to the family of the deceased and suspended the squad in charge, said the GCIC.  

Report from Compass Direct News