Religious Freedom Threatened for Christians in Indonesia
By Linda Burkle, PhD
In 2002, I had the opportunity to travel to the Netherlands to attend and speak at an International Social Welfare Conference. I was a member of the Salvation Army delegation representing countries around the world. One of my colleagues was a female Salvation Army officer from Indonesia, who also served as a pastor. She talked of the persecution they had experienced, including harassment and burning down her church building.
Years later, in 2011, I traveled to Indonesia to attend a Christian wedding. The bride’s family were wealthy Chinese Catholics, who often hold a higher social standing than native Indonesians. The wedding was extravagant; it was held at a glass chapel in a resort overlooking the South Pacific on the island of Bali, a popular honeymoon and tourist destination. Everywhere on the island were statues of Hindu gods, not seen in Jakarta, which is predominately Muslim. The contrasts were striking.
Such contrasts in spiritual imagery within Indonesia speak to the unique geography of the Asian country. Indonesia is a large country comprised of a series of islands reflecting diverse cultures and religions. Accordingly, it has a history of religious pluralism with the government recognizing six religions. Indonesia surpasses other countries with the largest Muslim population, 87.2 percent of its 267 million people. Other government-recognized religions include Christianity (9.9 percent) and Hinduism (1.7 percent), as well as Buddhism and Confucianism, together representing under 1 percent of the population.  Such religious pluralism is protected by Article 29 of Indonesia’s constitution, which “guarantees all persons the freedom of worship, each according to his/her own religion or belief.” 
Despite religious rights granted by the constitution, there has been an growing trend of Christian discrimination, taking various forms including hate speech and violence. One particularly relevant example of this discrimination recently has been the denial of building permits for houses of worship. Increasingly, the 2006 Joint Regulation on Houses of Worship Regulation is being used to prevent churches from being built. In November, International Christian Concern reported that at least twenty-three churches have been closed in the past three years, according to the National Commission on Human Rights. 
Moreover, the government has continued to prosecute blasphemy allegations and impose severe prison sentences. While proselytization is not illegal, it is exceedingly difficult. According to Open Doors, churches most frequently targeted are those that evangelize; Christian converts from Islam face the most severe persecution from their families and communities. 
Citizens are required to indicate their religious affiliation on their government ID cards. As a result, some misrepresent their religion because it impacts their access to government jobs, education, licenses, and permits.
With these growing concerns, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom has put Indonesia on a “special watch list.” 
Indonesian Muslims are overwhelmingly Sunni Muslims, although they practice “folk” Islam, incorporating animatism into their religion. Most are not strictly observant, unlike the hardliners and radical extremists who influence them and target Christians. The extent of persecution varies greatly among provinces with the highest number of incidents in West Java, Jakarta, and East Java. Aceh province has enacted Shari’a Law, enforced by religious police.  While the government typically does not perpetrate discrimination, it often is ineffective or unwilling to provide protection and justice for Christians.  According to Human Rights Watch, “the Indonesian government has long coddled militant Islamists implicated in violence against religious minorities. Officials and security forces frequently facilitate harassment of religious minorities and sometimes even blame the victims.” 
Violent attacks on Christians are commonly led by radical Islamic groups. On November 27, 2020, a horrific attack occurred at small Christian village on the island of Sulawesi, one of 6,000 inhabited islands in Indonesia. A Salvation Army officer serving as a pastor was brutally decapitated and hacked to death, three other church members were also killed, burned in a Salvation Army post used for prayer meetings. Six other houses were burned as villagers fled. The attack was reportedly conducted by a militant Islamic group known as the Mujahideen of East Indonesia. In recent years this group has been responsible for at least twenty deaths of religious minorities whom they believed to be “helping the police.” 
President Joko Widodo condemned the attack and ordered the police and military to find the attackers. The police reported that they have difficulty arresting those responsible who often have ‘the support of the local populations.”  However, as noted above, police are often seen as complicit to such attacks.
One thing is clear, in Indonesia as well as numerous other countries, militant Islamic factions are responsible for much of the persecution and violence against Christians.
Dr. Burkle retired from The Salvation Army in early 2019 where she oversaw an array of social services in a multi-state region. Along with the State Attorney General, Burkle Co-Chaired the Nebraska Human Trafficking Task Force. Dr. Burkle holds a doctoral degree in international relations. Dr. Burkle has worked with persecuted peoples in a number of countries, and her dissertation focused on religious persecution; specifically regarding Iran, Iraq, Sudan, China and Burma (Myanmar). Dr. Burkle resides in Omaha, Nebraska. She has three grown children and eight grandchildren.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of International Christian Concern or any of its affiliates.