Kazakhstan threatens to deport Christian missionaries

Kazakhstan has left threats to deport Viktor Leven "hanging in the air", he has told Forum 18 News Service. The now-stateless Baptist, who is Kazakh-born, was convicted of missionary activity without state permission, and because he and his wife do not have passports they cannot either obtain paid work or travel by train. He and his family live on what they can grow themselves.

Another Baptist, Zhanna-Tereza Raudovich, who was fined 100 times the minimum monthly wage for hosting worship in her home, has had an appeal against the fine rejected and has appealed to the Supreme Court.

Akmola Regional Police held a seminar on ways of struggling against religious extremism, during which Baptists were associated with terrorism. Asked why this association was made, police told Forum 18 that Baptists were not extremists but they "do violate the law often" as they continue religious activity without official registration. Attendees at the seminar included members of President Nursultan Nazarbaev’s Nur Otan political party.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Kazakhstan: "There is no persecution in Kazakhstan"

As Kazakhstan is about to begin the role of 2010 Chairperson-in-Office for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the country continues to violate its OSCE human rights commitments, reports Forum 18 News Service.

One Protestant pastor is facing criminal charges for "causing severe damage to health due to negligence" because he prayed with a woman about her health, at her request. The KNB secret police declined to explain why a pastor praying for people attending his church should be a matter for criminal charges.

Asked whether Pastor Kim is being targeted for his faith, the KNB officer told Forum 18 News Service that: "There is no persecution in Kazakhstan". The authorities also continue to throughout Kazakhstan close Christian-run rehabilitation centres for people suffering from drug and alcohol addiction.

Report from the Christian Telegraph

Kyrgyzstan: Religious freedom survey, December 2009

In its survey analysis of freedom of religion or belief in Kyrgyzstan, Forum 18 News Service finds that the state continues to violate its commitments to implement freedom of religion or belief for all. Limitations on this fundamental freedom and other human rights have increased – in both law and practice – under President Kurmanbek Bakiev.

A harsh new Religion Law was adopted in 2009, despite international protests, and a similarly harsh new Law on Religious Education and Educational Institutions is being drafted. There are also plans for a new Law on Traditional Religions.

State actions, including banning unregistered religious activity and raids on meetings for worship, show little sign of either a willingness to implement human rights commitments, or an understanding that genuine security depends on genuine respect for human rights.

As a Baha’i put it to Forum 18: "Our country has so many urgent problems – poverty, the lack of medicine, AIDS, crime, corruption. Why don’t officials work on these instead of making life harder for religious believers?" Kyrgyzstan faces the UN Universal Periodic Review process in May 2010.

Report from the Christian Telegraph 

Convert Languishing in Jail in Ethiopia for Handing Out Bibles

Leader in Christian-Muslim relations accused of ‘malicious’ distribution.

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia, September 15 (CDN) — A convert from Islam who has led a push for Muslim-Christian understanding in Ethiopia has been in jail for nearly four months since his arrest for “malicious” distribution of Bibles.

Christian sources in Ethiopia said that, contrary to Ethiopian law, 39-year-old Bashir Musa Ahmed has not been formally charged since his arrest on May 23 in Jijiga, capital of Somali Region Zone Five, a predominantly Muslim area in eastern Ethiopia. Zonal police arrested him after he was accused of providing Muslims with Somali-language Bibles bearing covers that resemble the Quran, the sources said.

An Ethiopian national, Ahmed is known as a bold preacher of Christianity and is credited with opening discussion of the two faiths between Christian and Muslim leaders. He is well-known in the area as a scholar of Islam, but his case has gone largely unreported in Ethiopia.

A source who requested anonymity said authorities likely are secretly planning to transfer Ahmed from his Jijiga cell to Ghagahbur jail some 200 kilometers away near the Somali border, in part to prevent other Christians from visiting him and in part because he has not been charged.

The source told Compass that Ahmed’s own relatives and tribe instigated the arrest with the intent of stopping him from spreading Christianity in the region, whose 5 million predominantly Muslim inhabitants are mainly of Somali origin. 

“The Ethiopian constitution allows for religious tolerance,” said the source, “but to date Ahmed has not been taken to court. He is still in the cell now, going on the fourth month, which is quite unusual for an Ethiopian nationality and the constitutional requirements.”

For providing Bibles with cover pages resembling the Quran, Ahmed is accused of “maliciously” distributing Bibles and trying to convert Muslims to Christianity, although conversion and manifesting one’s faith are not illegal in Ethiopia. At issue is whether the Bibles with covers resembling the Quran violate copyright issues and disrespect Islam.

Christian converts in the area said the kind of Bible that Ahmed distributed is widely available on the market in Ethiopia and is commonly used by Somali Christians inside and outside of the country.

Following a recent visit to Ahmed, the source said he looked strong in faith but seemed to have lost weight and was in need of clothes.

“I am doing fine here in prison, but it is a bit unfortunate that some of my close friends who claimed to advocate and serve the persecuted Christians have not come to see me,” Ahmed told the source. “I am thankful for those who have taken their time to come and see me as well as advocate for my release.”

Sources said hostility toward those spreading faith different from Islam is a common occurrence in Muslim dominated areas of Ethiopia and neighboring countries. Christians are subject to harassment and intimidation, they said, to stem a rising number of Muslim converts.

“In God’s own time I know I will be set free,” Ahmed told the source. “Continue praying for me. I know it is God’s will for me to be here at this time and moment in life.”

Ethiopia’s constitution, laws and policies promote freedom of religion, but occasionally local authorities infringe on this right, according to the U.S. Department of State’s 2008 International Religious Freedom Report. An estimated 40 to 45 percent of Ethiopia’s population belongs to the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, evangelical and Pentecostal groups make up an estimated 10 percent of the population and about 45 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim, according to the report.

In Ethiopia’s federal state system, each state is autonomous in its administration, and most of those holding government positions in Somali Region Zone Five are Muslims.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Authorities in Laos Jail, Threaten to Kill Christians

Local official tells pastor to renounce faith; church member expelled, children denied schooling.

LOS ANGELES, September 11 (CDN) — Authorities in Laos last week jailed a church leader in Savannakhet Province for embracing Christianity and threatened to expel him unless he renounces his faith – and kill him if his arrest is made public, according to a human rights organization.

Officials from Liansai village, from Saybouthong sub-district and from Ad-Sapangthong district on Sept. 3 arrested Thao Oun, an elder at Boukham Church, at his home and forced him at gunpoint to the Saybounthong sub‐district office, according to Human Rights Watch for Lao Religious Freedom (HRWLRF). The organization said the officials turned him over to the chief of police of Saybouthong sub‐district, Thao Somphet, who detained, interrogated, and terrorized the Christian for nearly six hours.

Oun was charged with bringing destruction to the Lao nation and government by embracing Christianity, which the officials consider a “foreign religion to be abhorred,” according to HRWLRF.

The chief of police demanded that Oun immediately renounce Christianity or face expulsion from the village. He “further threatened Thao Oun that if word of his arrest and interrogation get out to the international community, he will be put to death,” according to HRWLRF. The organization decided to publicize the mistreatment, a spokesman told Compass, citing international exposure as the most effective way of preventing Lao officials from carrying out threats.

The sub-district chief of police also told Oun that his harsh treatment would end “only after the death of all believers in Boukham Church,” according to HRWLRF.

To further pressure Boukham Church, Liansai village officials and security forces along with Saybouthong sub‐district police on Saturday (Sept. 5) arrested Thao Aom, who became a Christian 10 months ago. He also was interrogated and intimidated at Saybouthong sub‐district police headquarters, with authorities telling him, “You have believed in a foreign religion, so you must sign an affidavit to renounce Christianity – if you do not recant, you must vacate the village.”

HRWLRF reported that after three hours of police interrogation, Aom still refused to sign the affidavit renouncing his faith. He was expelled from the village.

He has sought refuge in a village about six kilometers (nearly four miles) away, where he had previously lived, according to HRWLRF.

On Sunday (Sept. 6) at 6 a.m., Palan district police authorities joined the officers from Saybouthong sub‐district, in Ad‐Sapangthong district, to surround the Boukham Church worship site in Saisomboon village – blocking church members from entering for Sunday morning worship.

Members of Boukham Church rotate worship sites among three locations, according to HRWLRF: in Liansai village in Saybounthong sub‐district of Ad‐Sapangthong district; in Boukham village in Ad‐Sapangthong district; and in Saisomboon village in Ad‐Sapangthong district. Elder Oun lives in Liansai village, where he leads the worship service when Boukham Church meets there.

To punish Boukham Church members for following Christ, Lao officials have denied schooling to 10 of their children and cut off access to water at village wells, according to HRWLRF. They have also deprived all area Christians of protection and rights and threatened to deny public medical care for Christians who get sick or injured.

Laos is a Communist country that is 1.5 percent Christian and 67 percent Buddhist, with the remainder unspecified.

The actions against Boukham church violate the Lao Constitution as well as the 2004 Law on Criminal Procedure, the 2006 Law on the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Children and the 2005 Penal Law, according to the organization. The officials who arrested Oun and Aom have violated Article 5 of the Law on Criminal Procedure, which prohibits the arrest, detention or building search without an order from a public prosecutor or from a people’s court, according to HRWLRF.

“Any individual who arrests, detains or conducts any search of buildings or persons in contravention of the laws shall be subject to criminal proceedings and shall be criminally liable,” the law states, according to HRWLRF.

“In addition to violating the Lao Constitution that guarantees religious rights of an individual Lao person, the arrest of Thao Oun by gunpoint was clearly an abuse of authority, and the officials should be punished for this criminal act,” HRWLRF said in a statement. “Article 154 of Penal Law stipulates, ‘Any civil servant engaging in the intentional excessive use of the authority provided by law, thereby [adversely] affecting the interests of the state or society or the rights and interests of citizens, shall be punished by three months to three years of imprisonment and shall be fined from 500,000 kip to 5 million kip [US$60 to US$600].”

The law further states that if such abuses of authority are committed with the use of force, weapons, torture, indecent words or acts affecting the honor and reputation of the victim, the offender is to be punished by three to five years of imprisonment and fined from 2 million kip to 7 million kip (US$240 to US$840).

The denial of education for school‐age children on the basis of religious affiliation violates Article 3 (5) of the Law on the Protection of the Rights and Interests of Children, the organization asserted. Article 6 further states, “All children are equal in all aspects without discrimination of any kind in respect of gender, race, ethnicity, language, beliefs, religion, physical state and socio‐economic status of their family.”

Last year officials in Boukham village detained three Christians from the church – Pastor Sombong Supatto, Boot Chanthaleuxay and Khamvan Chanthaleuxay – for several weeks before releasing them on Oct. 16. Authorities initially arrested Pastor Supatto and four others on July 20, storming their house church and ordering the 63 Christians present to cease worshiping or face prison for “believing in and worshiping God.”

Police targeted the church because it was not officially registered. Such registration comes with strict limitations on church activities, so many Christians avoid doing so.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Johnny Hunt expresses urgency about Great Commission

Encouraged by attendance exceeding 8,600 registered messengers on the first day of the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting June 23 — twice as many as he expected — SBC President Johnny Hunt said there is a “sense of urgency” among the brethren, reports Baptist Press.

Hunt attributed much of the interest at this year’s meeting to his Great Commission Resurgence initiative. In a news conference following his re-election to a second term, he also addressed questions ranging from his opinion of controversial Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll to his view of Calvinism among Southern Baptists.

“I feel there’s a lot of energy in the halls,” said Hunt, pastor of Atlanta-area First Baptist Church in Woodstock. “Everybody’s talking the same talk: ‘We need this Great Commission Resurgence.’

“We are saying times have been desperate,” Hunt added. “Now I really do sense fellow Southern Baptists are saying we need to get serious.”

Asked about Driscoll, Hunt responded: “I don’t know him, never met him. A lot of young men like to follow his blogs and podcasts. It’s just been interesting.”

Referring to motions from the floor placing Driscoll and the network he founded, Acts 29, in a bad light, Hunt said, “[T]he entire premise of being a Baptist is sort of thrown under the bus when you start telling someone who they can or cannot fellowship with.” He said it is a matter that it should be left to the conscience and the priesthood of the believer.

About church methodology, Hunt said the SBC is a “great family fellowship” using varied methodologies which provide a healthy balance.

Hunt said it might be that some of the perceived tension across generations of Southern Baptists is rooted in several things, including methodology, dress and music.

Encouraged by what he said is the turnout of younger Southern Baptists, Hunt said, “[I]f we can move beyond our perceptions” and begin to “listen to heart of some of these young leaders,” Southern Baptists might be encouraged “to catch their passion.”

Hunt relayed his experience at a recent International Mission Board appointment service in Denver where 101 mostly young missionaries were sent out, with the “majority going to extremely hard and dangerous places.”

“With that type of commitment to Jesus Christ that they’re willing, many of them, to write their will before they leave with the understanding some of them will probably never return, I have a very difficult time spending my time talking about their jeans, whether hair is spiked or colored” or their musical tastes, Hunt said.

By building relationships with younger leaders, “if we see some areas of concern, at least we have earned the right to speak into them.”

On the continuing banter between Calvinists and those critical of the doctrine that attempts to describe God’s work in salvation, Hunt said the debate has raged for more than 400 years and is part of Baptist history.

“We have wonderful men and women on both sides. I think the Baptist tent is large enough for both,” he said.

Asked by a reporter if an invitation was made for President Barack Obama to address the SBC, Hunt said he knew of no such invitation.

But Hunt, the first known Native American SBC president, said, “I feel like we will have a resolution to really honor our president, especially in the context of being the first African American to be elected. We have much to celebrate in that.”

Hunt said he had ample opportunity to invite Republicans to speak, “but we felt that would send a wrong signal because we wanted to send prayer support to the new president and we are mandated to pray for our president.”

Speaking to proposed federal hate crimes legislation that some say could infringe on biblical preaching, Hunt said he was not overly worried as long as pastors “stay in the context of preaching biblical truth. And if the day comes that we would be imprisoned for the proclamation of the Gospel becoming that much of an offense, we would join about two-thirds of the rest of the planet.

“God forbid that I would travel to the Middle East to encourage those already in hostile settings while at same time being afraid to proclaim the message that I encourage,” Hunt said.

Returning to the Great Commission Resurgence, Hunt answered a question regarding media access to the meetings of the proposed GCR task force. He said media presence would be “counterproductive because we want people to be at liberty to share their heart.”

It could be “embarrassing where we’re just seeking wisdom,” Hunt added, “but we would love to have any and all of you at the meetings and as soon as it is over we’d be delighted to share what we came to by way of context.”

Hunt said he has “no desire whatsoever to touch the structure of the SBC and the truth is, I couldn’t if I wanted to. It would violate policy.” Hunt said perhaps more clarity in his early statements about the GCR document could have helped ease fears of drastic change.

Even if the GCR task force were rejected, traction already has been gained by efficiency studies at the Georgia and Florida conventions and at the Southern Baptist mission boards, Hunt said.

In responding to the first question asked at the news conference, Hunt predicted if the GCR were to pass that evening, he likely would name the members of the task force June 24 and it would include several seminary professors, a college president, an associational director of missions, pastors of churches of varied sizes spanning the country and ethnically diverse members.

“I don’t have all the names so I’d probably miss some,” Hunt said. “But I’d be quick to say it will be a very fair committee.”

Report from the Christian Telegraph


Judge puts them on probation, threatening them with ‘apostasy’ trial.

LOS ANGELES, March 31 (Compass Direct News) – Declaring three Iranian Christians guilty of cooperating with “anti-government movements,” a court in Shiraz on March 10 ordered the converts to discontinue Christian activities and stop propagating their faith.

An Islamic Revolutionary Court judge handed an eight-month suspended prison sentence with a five-year probation to Seyed Allaedin Hussein, Homayoon Shokouhi, and Seyed Amir Hussein Bob-Annari. The judge said he would enforce their prison sentence and try them as “apostates,” or those who leave Islam, if they violate terms of their probation – including a ban on contacting one another.

A new penal code under consideration by the Iranian Parliament includes a bill that would require the death penalty for apostasy.

“The warning that they will be ‘arrested and tried as apostates’ if they continue their Christian activities is quite chilling,” said a regional analyst who requested anonymity.

The Islamic Revolutionary Court was created after Iran’s 1979 revolution to prosecute those suspected of seeking to depose the Islamic regime. The “anti-government movements” referred to by the judge are satellite television stations Love Television and Salvation TV. Unlike the Internet, which is heavily censored in Iran, the two 24-hour satellite TV stations can bypass government information barriers.

Sources said links between the accused and these organizations, however, remain tenuous.

“The TV link came up almost six months after [the original arrests], so it is very new,” said an informed source. “We believe they just made it up, or it is something they want to make appear more important than is the reality.”

The three men were arrested by security forces on May 11, 2008 at the Shiraz airport while en route to a Christian marriage seminar in Dubai. According to a report by Farsi Christian News Network (FCNN), at that time the families of the three men avoided formal charges by agreeing to terms of release, including payment of a bond amount. Details of the terms were undisclosed.


Churches Pressured

The sentencing of three converts from Islam follows more than 50 documented arrests of Christians in 2008 alone, and the recent government crackdown includes Christian institutions that minister beyond Iran’s tiny indigenous Christian community.

On March 19, Assyrian Member of Parliament Yonathan Betkolia announced that by order of the Islamic Revolutionary Court, an Assyrian Pentecostal church in Tehran would be closed. According to FCNN, the church in the Shahrara area of Tehran was facing closure because it offered a Farsi-language service attended by converts from Islam.

During a speech following his election to Parliament in October, Betkolia had lauded freedoms accorded to minority groups in Iran, and he has publicly protested the Shahrara church allowing “non-Assyrians” – that is, Muslims – to attend services. The regional analyst said that Betkolia made these pronouncements as the increase in government pressure on the Christian community has put him in a difficult position.

“As a representative of the Assyrian community, a priority for Betkolia is to ensure the preservation of the limited freedoms and relative peace his traditional Christian community enjoys,” said the analyst. “Disassociation from a church which has welcomed believers from a Muslim background should therefore be seen as a form of self-defense.”

The number of Assyrian Christians in the country is estimated at between 10,000 and 20,000, with estimates of Armenian Christians in Iran ranging from 110,000 to 300,000.

Advocacy organization Human Rights Activists in Iran strongly criticized the decision to close the Assyrian church.

“The closing of the church is clearly a violation of human rights,” the organization stated, “because the right to change one’s religion and the right of self-expression are hereby targeted by the Islamic Revolutionary Court.”

The pastor of the Shahrara church has indicated that cancelling Farsi-language services may allow it to continue, though it was unclear at press time whether the congregation’s leadership was willing to make that compromise. FCNN reported in February that church leaders had on some occasions cancelled Farsi-language services at church.  

Report from Compass Direct News


The controversial Anti-Conversion Bill in Sri Lanka has suffered a great setback with the recent suspension of the Bill by the Parliament as a result of intense opposition from the Christian population, reports Success Kanayo Uchime, special to ASSIST News Service.

In a report from the UK-based Release International (RI), a parliamentary committee comprised of Christian parliamentarians and leaders of political parties examined the Bill and agreed that it could have serious consequences on religious activities, spark inter-religious conflict and possibly violate the country’s constitution.

It stated that the Minister of Religious Affairs Pandu Bandaranayake, who confirmed that Christians have called for more clarity on some words in the Bill said that despite the opposition from the Buddhist-led party, Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), the Bill will be re-examined by the Ministry’s religious consultative committee.

RI report noted that a local media said that part of the Bill rejects the offer of a gift, cash or any other incentive to convert or attempt to convert a person from one religion to another and is punishable with up to seven years’ imprisonment and a maximum fine of 500,000 rupees (about £6,800).

“Christians fear that the wording is open to abuse, and may severely restrict Christian activities in Sri Lanka,” the report said.

In another report by the BBC, it said that it has gathered that the United Nations International Children Emergency Fund (UNICEF) in Sri Lanka has reported that the conflict in Sri Lanka has killed hundreds of children and left many more injured.

It noted that thousands of children are at risk because of a critical lack of food, water and medicines and that the intense fighting is going on between Sri Lankan troops and Tamil Tiger rebels in north-eastern Sri Lanka.

“The Tigers have been driven from most of the territory they held by the army. They are now cornered in a small patch of jungle and coastal area in Mullaitivu district,” UNICEF report said.

In his reaction, the UNICEF Executive Director, Ann Veneman, said the children and their families caught in the conflict zone are at risk of dying from disease and malnutrition.

“Regular, safe access for humanitarian agencies is urgently required, so that life-saving supplies can be provided, and civilians must be allowed to move to safe areas where essential humanitarian support is more readily available,” Veneman further said.

Sri Lanka is said to have a multi ethnic and multi religious population, while Buddhism constitutes the religious faith of about 70% of the population of the island, most of whom follow the Theravada school of Buddhism.

Further to that Sri Lanka also has the longest continuous history of Buddhism of any predominately Buddhist nation, with the Sangha having existed in a largely unbroken lineage since its introduction in the 2nd century BCE.

Report from the Christian Telegraph


Serious charges about security in Pakistan have been provided to ANS by a reliable source in Pakistan speaking on condition of anonymity, reports Jeremy Reynalds, correspondent for ASSIST News Service.

The anonymous source said in an e-mail that Pakistan’s government needs to make clear its real intentions.

He said that while Pakistan tells India, the U.S. and the rest of the world that the country doesn’t allow terrorists to operate internally, the Taliban has successfully consolidated its control in the Swat Valley during the last year.

The source charged the Taliban in Swat with an ongoing reign of terror.

He said, “They have banned women from the marketplace, killed dozens of innocent people everyday and left their bodies in the street or hanging on a pole in a busy shopping area, some of them headless.”

He said among other atrocities, Taliban members in Swat have also “bombed 200 schools, banned girls’ education in the whole valley (preventing 80,000 girls from going to school), killed politicians, policeman and their relatives, destroyed dozens of homes, destroyed barber shops where men had their beards trimmed, blown up music shops and threatened bus drivers with suicide bombers if they do not stop playing music on their buses.”

The source told ANS that police officers are rarely seen in public and when they travel, they have a military escort. In addition, he said, the Peshawar High Court has said it plans to close its courts in Swat because of an inability to function under current conditions. There is also a plan, he said, as a result of pressure from the Taliban, to legalize Shariah (Islamic) law in much of the province.

“In light of this,” the source said, “people need to know what the prime minister, president and others in leadership positions mean when they say that they will not allow terrorists to operate on its soil. If they are so concerned about other countries respecting their sovereignty, they should explain to the rest of us why they allow these evil men to continue to flagrantly violate the constitution of Pakistan.”

The source asked, “When will these leaders, who were elected less than a year ago, finally decide to take a stand and protect the very people who elected them to office?”

The source concluded his comments by saying the international media need to put a spotlight on this issue, and start asking the government hard questions.

ANS discovered that some media are already drawing attention to the situation. In a story by Andrew Buncombe and Omar Waraich in Britain’s Independent newspaper, the writers reported that Taliban members in the Swat Valley are issuing “wanted lists” for four dozen people they plan to bring before makeshift Shariah courts.

The Independent said that in one of his “notorious” radio broadcasts, Taliban leader Maulana Fazlullah named politicians and government officials “wanted” by the militants.

“These people encouraged military operations in the area and are responsible for the killings of Taliban and civilians,” the Independent reported the cleric said.

The Independent said the list’s creation is the latest threat from the militants who now control more than three-quarters of the Swat Valley, one of Pakistan’s most celebrated tourist areas.

In recent weeks, the Independent said, their brutality has increased with a series of public executions and the issuing of a number of edicts.

The Independent reported that a spokesman for the Taliban said the wanted list was drawn up following a meeting chaired by Fazlullah.

“All of them will have to appear before the Taliban court, or they will face action,” the Independent reported Muslim Khan, a spokesman for the Swat Taliban, told The News newspaper.

Report from the Christian Telegraph


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