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Imprisoned Indonesian Sunday School Teachers Released

by Sarah Page

6/9/07 Indonesia (Compass Direct News) – A small crowd gathered to welcome Dr. Rebekka Zakaria, Eti Pangesti and Ratna Bangun as they walked free from the Indramayu district prison in West Java, Indonesia early this morning. They had served nearly two years of their three-year sentence.

The three women were arrested in May 2005 and sentenced to prison that September for allowing Muslim children to attend their Sunday school program, even though the parents had consented to their children’s attendance. After several legal appeals failed, the women were delighted to be granted an early release on parole following international advocacy campaigns on their behalf.

Authorities quietly moved the release from 9 a.m. to 6 a.m. after Muslim extremists said they would gather outside the prison to protest the reduced sentence. During their trial in 2005, Muslim extremists had made murderous threats against the three women within and outside the courtroom.

The Christian Peace and Prosperity Party sent two busloads of people to the prison to ensure safety for the women. Supporters and a handful of local and international journalists were also present to witness the release.

Tearful Farewell

The women appeared happy and peaceful as they emerged through the prison gates, an eyewitness told Compass. All three said they had no fears for the future and were convinced that God would protect and guide them forward.

Other female prisoners were tearful as Zakaria, Pangesti and Bangun left the women’s cell-block, the eyewitness told Compass. Zakaria’s daughter, Linda, had traveled to the prison almost daily with food for the three; they cooked meals on a small gas stove in their cell to supplement the poor prison diet and often shared the meals with fellow inmates.

“It was really moving to see how the other prisoners cried when they waved goodbye to them,” the source said.

With little fanfare, the women were taken by bus to Cirebon where they reported to the prison superintendent. As a condition of their early release, the women are required to sign in at the Cirebon office once a month until February 2008.

After their early morning release, the women spent the rest of the day celebrating with their families in Cirebon . Bangun hopes to visit her father’s grave in Medan during the next few weeks; her father died two months ago while she was still in prison…

Prison Church

Zakaria, Pangesti and Bangun were arrested after members of the local Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI or Muslim Clerics Council) in Indramayu district, West Java , accused them of trying to convert Muslim children.

A local primary school had approached Zakaria’s church in 2003 and asked them to run a Christian education program for their Christian students, as required by a new National Education System Bill. The school lacked the necessary equipment and teachers to run the program itself.

Several months later, when Muslim children were discovered attending the classes, Muslim clerics filed a complaint with the Indramayu police. The women were arrested on May 13, 2005 under Indonesia ’s Child Protection Act. After a series of hearings, judges on September 1, 2005 found the women guilty of “Christianization,” saying they had used “deceitful conduct, a series of lies and enticements to seduce children to change their religion against their wills.”

For almost two years, prison guards have granted permission for Zakaria’s church, the Gereja Kristen Kemah Daud, to meet within the prison grounds on Sunday mornings, after the forced closure of their meeting place in Harguelis. The church now faces the very-real challenge of finding another, more permanent worship facility.

Muslim extremists have forced a number of churches in West Java to close in recent years, citing lack of official permits. Church closures peaked around the time of the Sunday school teachers’ trial in 2005.

A controversial law governing permits for places of worship was then revised. The Joint Ministerial Decree (SKB) now requires proof of at least 90 existing members, the approval of 60 neighbors from different faith backgrounds, and approval from local authorities before a church permit is granted. A separate building permit is also required.

Christians say the new provisions make it virtually impossible to obtain a church permit, particularly in Muslim-majority neighborhoods.

Last Sunday (June 3), around 100 Muslim hardliners barged into a home in Soreang, West Java , during a Sunday school class. The mob, members of the Anti-Apostasy Alliance Movement, smashed glass images of Jesus Christ and demanded that the church be shut down, citing lack of a proper permit, Reuters reported on Monday (June 4).

Lidia Elisa, wife of the Rev. Robby Elisa, told Reuters that the men tried to force a teenage student to “spit on the Bible and deny Christ. But when he refused, they kicked him in the gut … they sent the kids outside screaming and crying.”

As Zakaria, Pangesti and Bangun return to life in the volatile environment of West Java , they ask that Christians around the world continue to support them in prayer.