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Christmas Behind Bars for Indonesia Sunday School Teachers

JAKARTA, INDONESIA (BosNewsLife)– Three Indonesian Sunday school teachers who were jailed for allegedly forcing Muslim children to become Christians and three other believers charged with sectarian violence spent Christmas behind bars, despite international appeals for their release.

Dr. Rebekka Zakaria, Eti Pangesti and Ratna Bangun, who serve a three year prison since September in the Indramayu district of West Java province “lost an important appeal” November 22, “to have their sentences reduced or overturned” by a higher court, said religious rights group Christian Freedom International earlier.

Zakaria had reportedly prayed to be home at Christmas, but the court rejected their appeal on grounds they had broken Indonesia ’s Child Protection Law.

DENYING CHARGES

The women have denied the charges, which were brought against them by a local Islamic group. The teachers maintain they had instructed the children to get permission from their parents before attending the local church program, and those who did not have permission were asked to go home.

Three other Indonesian Christians may face imminent execution by a firing squad after the Indonesian president denied them clemency earlier this month, Christian rights group Jubilee Campaign USA (JC) told BosNewsLife.

JC said Fabianus Tibo, Dominggus Dasilva and Marinus Riwu were sentenced to death on charges of participating in Muslim-Christian clashes five years ago in the town of Poso, about 1,500 kilometers (900 miles) northeast of the capital Jakarta.

THOUSANDS KILLED

An estimated 2,000 people died in the violence, until a peace deal was agreed in 2001. “The defendants, however, maintain their innocence and claim that their convictions resulted from irregularities during their trial,” JC said.

“Having recently been denied clemency by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, their execution by firing squad may take place as early as the end of this year,” the group added.

While different, both case have underscored concern within the church community about
the perceived bias treatment of Christians by a Muslim dominated government and legal system.

CHURCH CLOSURES

Following the closure of scores of churches in the past two years, the Indonesian government is also reportedly revising a controversial law that regulates places of worship.

But Christian leaders fear the changes would do little to keep Muslim communities from blocking or shutting down churches.

The original 1969 decree requires all religious groups to apply for permits before setting up a place of worship, but neighbors in the immediate vicinity of a proposed church, mosque or Hindu temple must give their consent before a permit is granted.

PROPOSED REVISIONS

Under proposed revisions, community members would be given even greater power to determine whether a church could be established, as “inter-faith forums” mirroring the religious make-up of the village and province would have to give approval before a church could even apply for a permit, commented Christian news agency Compass Direct.

“If it comes down to a vote, Muslim leaders will influence others to vote against churches,” Father Antonius Benny Susetyo, a spokesman for the Indonesian Bishops’ Council, told the news agency.

Christians comprise about 8 percent of the 242-million people of Indonesia , the world’s largest Muslim nation. (With BosNewsLife Research and reports from Indonesia ).