The following article gives some background to why radical Muslims in Indonesia are becoming increasingly militant against Christians.
By Sian Powell
FROM the recent suicide bombings in Bali, to the forcible closing of churches in West Java and persecution of so-called heretical and liberal Muslims, the march of militant Islam is leading to a sense of increasing intolerance across Indonesia . In the province of Aceh , militants were this week out to commemorate the holy fasting month of Ramadan by menacing discos and bars.
As many as 23 so-called “wild” or unlicensed Christian churches in West Java have been forced to close by militant Muslims in recent months, according to prominent Christians, who fear they are facing a surge of bigotry.
Muslims considered insufficiently orthodox have also been under threat. Hundreds of militants recently attacked mosques, as many as 33 houses and a number of cars in Cianjur, West Java , because the property belonged to the “heretical” Islamic Ahmadiyah sect. Ominously, the militants say their actions are condoned by both the state and by peak Islamic bodies.
Muhammad Mu’min, chief of the Anti-Apostasy Movement Alliance (AGAP), says the proliferation of illegal churches must be stopped, because the spread of Christianity damages the fabric of Islam in Indonesia . “The substance of closing ‘wild’ churches is an apostasy issue,” he says. “Many of our brothers have converted to non-Muslim religions, especially Christianity, because of overt or covert activities, and even with force.”
Conversion from Islam to another religion is a very serious matter in Indonesia . Leaving Islam is considered a sin by Muslims, and apostates are reviled. Three Indonesian Christian women from Indramayu in West Java were each jailed for three years earlier this month for inviting Muslim children to church events, and apparently thereby luring them away from Islam.
The violence can hit even humanitarian organisations. Around the same time as the Cianjur violence, seven former counsellors at a cancer and drug rehabilitation centre in Probolinggo, East Java , were sentenced to prison terms of between three and five years for insulting Islam — militants had earlier raided the centre, driving out patients and vandalising the interior. A few weeks earlier, two Christian congregations in Bekasi were forced to pray in the streets, after extremists blocked the way to their churches.
This intolerance, in a nation long famed for its easygoing and gentle brand of Islam, seems to stem from the edicts of Indonesia ‘s highest Islamic authority, the Indonesian Council of Scholars (MUI). In July, the MUI issued a much-criticised series of decrees outlawing liberal interpretations of Islam, religious pluralism and secularism.
The 11 fatwas also banned interfaith marriage and prayers performed with people of other faiths, as well as renewing a decades-old ban on the heretical Muslim sect Ahmadiyah.
Ignored by most Muslims, the edicts were seized upon by a lunatic fringe of militants, including the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and the newer umbrella organisation AGAP. Indonesia ‘s beleaguered Christians, comprising about 9 per cent of the nation’s population of roughly 230 million, have been feeling particularly threatened. Long inured to violence in the conflict zones of Ambon and Poso, where internecine warfare has claimed thousands of lives, they now fear going to church on Sundays. As well as using the MUI fatwas as justification for the forcible closing of churches, the militants say the Indonesian Government has given them every right to take action against churches without licences.
A 1969 ministerial decree says permission must be sought from the local administration head and local residents for the construction of a place of worship. In largely Muslim Indonesia, this often means no permission is forthcoming for Christian churches, so Christians use houses, shops, hotels, and even office towers for worship. Concerned by the widespread and often violent attacks on these unlicensed churches in recent months, the Government has promised to revise the decree — but Christians remain anxious.
A former head of the Indonesia Church Association, Reverend Nathan Setiabudi, says he is compiling a detailed list of the violence. “The problem is, the national police chief thinks the people coming down to the streets (to attack churches) are justified,” he says. “I still think it’s against the law, and it has nothing to do with the decree.”
There is freedom of religion in Indonesia , which recognises five official creeds, including Christianity and Catholicism (an interesting separation), but Mr Setiabudi fears there is a plot afoot to meddle with the status quo.
“There are those who have power who have no heart, victimising and setting Muslims and Christians against each other as happened in Ambon and Poso,” he says. “They bombed Tentena (a market in the Christian town of Tentena in Sulawesi was attacked in May, killing 20). Now they are closing churches. If we allow it, there could be another Ambon or Poso on a national scale.” Christians and liberal-thinking Muslims are appalled both by the upsurge in violence and the authorities’ seeming unwillingness to do anything about it.
Although MUI head Umar Shihab has condemned the violence, the edicts that nurtured it have not been withdrawn.
“We have members in the MUI,” says Mu’min. “The first time we closed a wild church, it was at the MUI’s request. They asked me directly, ‘Please help us close them’. So we helped them.”
The hardliner, who has in the past been arrested for anti-alcohol and anti-gambling violence, says his movement has the support of prominent Muslims.
Asserting the AGAP organisation has members throughout Indonesia , Mu’min says he is ready for battle.
Ordinarily a small team would be sent to close a church, he says, but if the Christians resist, there will be violence.
“If they bring a mob, we will bring our mob, ready for physical battle.”