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Religious Freedom Still Elusive in West Java

ICC Note:

Radical Muslim groups continue to influence and manipulate policy and local officials in Indonesia to further tighten the reigns of any hint of religious freedom in the country.


2/27/08 Indonesia (Compass Direct) Almost eight months have passed since Dr. Rebekka Zakaria, Eti Pangesti and Ratna Bangun walked free from a prison in Indramayu, West Java, having served two years of a three-year sentence for allegedly using deceit to “Christianize” Muslim children.

Nobody has issued death threats against the women since then, Zakaria told Compass. All three women have settled back into the village of Harguelis and resumed their normal lives to some degree. But the influence of Islamic radicals is all too evident, restricting freedom of worship for Christians throughout the province.

Released a year early, Zakaria, Pangesti and Bangun must report to a probation officer once a month until February 2009.

Zakaria’s church, the Gereja Kristen Kemah Daud (GKKD or Christian Tabernacle of David, previously translated Christian Church of David’s Camp), which met at the prison on Sundays during her incarceration, now meets in Pamanukan, a town about 40 kilometers (25 miles) away from Harguelis. Since most members of the congregation depend on public transport, the journey takes well over an hour each way. Three churches in Harguelis now travel to Pamanukan for Sunday worship, while Muslim neighbors freely attend mosques in the village.

But GKKD, forbidden to meet in pastor Zakaria’s home since Muslim radicals protested in December 2004, has been unable to secure a church permit.

Permits Nearly Impossible

The protestors cited a Joint Ministerial Decree issued in 1969 and revised in 2006, which requires an official permit for any place of worship – whether Muslim, Christian or otherwise – operating throughout Indonesia.

Under the revised decree, any group applying for a permit must have 90 adult members with identification cards, and ID numbers must be provided with the application. Zakaria’s church has only 75 members, including children.

In addition, at least 60 neighbors must give their written consent before an application is made. “We have a good relationship with our Muslim neighbors,” Zakaria told Compass.

A medical practitioner, Zakaria treated many Harguelis residents before the trial. After the trial, however, her license was revoked. When she returned home from prison, many of Zakaria’s neighbors came to visit, welcoming her with tears.

“Some of them apologized that they couldn’t testify for us during the trial – they were afraid of what might happen to them,” she explained.

West Java is home to several radical Muslim groups, including the Anti-Apostasy Movement Alliance. Radicals showed up in force at the trial hearings, waving banners, shouting death threats and warning the judges that blood would be shed if they did not issue a guilty verdict.

Fearing intimidation from such groups, moderate Muslims are reluctant to give written consent for church applications.

Many congregations in West Java have fewer than 90 members. Most live in Muslim-dominated communities – Indramayu, for example, is 99 percent Muslim. In practice, this means it is impossible for most churches in the province to apply for a permit.

“Even if a church meets all the requirements and hands in an application, officials may not bother to read it,” another local source, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Compass. Often churches don’t get a response for months, he added, and the response is almost always negative.

At the same time, many of the several mosques in Harguelis and surrounding areas operate without official permits.

Persecution to Worsen

Since her release, Zakaria has spoken in many Indonesian churches. She has been surprised at the lack of awareness of her trial and imprisonment and of religious freedom violations in West Java as a whole.

Radicals forced at least 60 unregistered house churches to close in West Java in 2005, with closures peaking during the Sunday school teachers’ trial in late June, July and August.

Forced church closures have continued since then, with radicals also forcing the closure of Radio Gracia, a Christian radio station based in Cirebon, early this year.

“I don’t think this is the end of persecution,” Zakaria told Compass. “It will get worse in the future.”

Muslims are on edge when they see new churches appearing in their communities, a local source told Compass.

“In their eyes, new churches mean new converts,” he said. “But that’s not necessarily the case.”

As more students attend seminaries in Indonesia, more pastors become available to lead churches.

“Many young people prefer to stay in Java and not travel to remote islands,” he explained. “So they open a new church somewhere in Java or West Java, and existing Christians come along because it’s closer to where they live. This alarms Muslim clerics, because all they see is a new church where there was none before.”

There are officially 333 denominations in Indonesia, for approximately 22 million Protestants in an overall population of 234 million, the source added.

“So there are hundreds of small churches meeting in temporary venues such as private homes or warehouses or conference rooms because they can’t get an official church permit. Obviously this leads to charges of illegal worship.”

The Rev. Simon Timorason of West Java’s Christian Communication Forum has encouraged churches in West Java to work together in applying for permits. He believes church groups could apply for a combined permit to use a single building in a housing estate – but church groups prefer to work independently and have criticized Timorason for his advice.

Prison Church

Zakaria, Pangesti and Bangun were arrested on May 13, 2005 after members of the local Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI or Muslim Clerics Council) in Indramayu district accused them of trying to convert Muslim children.

After a series of hearings, judges on September 1, 2005 sentenced the women to three years in prison for “Christianization,” saying they had used “deceitful conduct, a series of lies and enticements to seduce children to change their religion against their wills,” although none of the children had actually converted. The school teachers deny all charges.

When they arrived at the prison, the superintendent asked Zakaria how she would hold firm to her faith. Zakaria asked for and received permission for her church to meet in the prison on Sundays. “It was the safest fellowship in Indonesia at that time,” Zakaria said.

“The guards knew we would share our faith with the other prisoners,” she added. “We were in the women’s cell block. So after we arrived, they began holding Quran classes for the other women prisoners, to make sure they would also stand strong in their faith.”

Lowest Moments, Inspirations

Zakaria’s adopted daughter, Linda, traveled 80 kilometers (50 miles) to and from the prison each day on a motorbike, bringing food and other supplies, and arranging visits to the imprisoned Sunday school teachers.

At one point a prison official teased the frequent visitor, asking, “Who is the prison manager, you or me?”

“People came up to me and said I was a strong woman,” she told Compass. “God gave me grace, but I don’t want to go through it again!”

Her most discouraging moment came a few days before the women’s release on June 8, 2007, when she heard that MUI clerics planned to collect the women from the prison and take them to the border of Indramayu, evicting them from the province.

“That frustrated me very much,” she said. “I cried and was very disheartened. This led me to pray, God, if you’ve taken care of them since the beginning, I’m sure you will allow them to walk free. That was my lowest moment.”

Zakaria’s lowest moment came just after she was arrested. “I didn’t dare ask God why,” she said. “But I did ask how. How would He take care of my family? God answered very simply. He said only, ‘Trust me.’”

She added that some people have asked how a just God could allow this to happen.

“But they forget that God came with us into the prison,” Zakaria said. “He promised He would be with us to the end of the age. I am living proof of that.”