Presidential Letdown

Indonesian Christians placed their hopeful votes for religious freedom in the 2019 presidential election, only to be left with empty promises.

By Gina Goh

02/22/2021 Indonesia (International Christian Concern)Christians in Indonesia had high expectations for incumbent presidential candidate Joko Widodo, commonly known as Jokowi. They hoped that he could change the tide of persecution they’ve faced for decades from the country’s majority Muslim population – the largest in the world.

With that in mind, 92% of Christian voters cast their ballots for Jokowi in the 2019 presidential election. Posing as a firm supporter of “Pancasila,” the official philosophical foundation of Indonesia intended to promote pluralism, Jokowi won over Christians’ support for his relatively moderate stance on Islam.

His opponent, Prabowo Subianto, was a former army general who formed an alliance with hardline Islamists. A Prabowo victory would have fused the state and fundamentalist Islam and likely led to a rise in radicalism.

A year and a half later, however, many Christians are increasingly disappointed in their leader as victims of blasphemy accusations continue to pop up. Churches across the nation still face problems with obtaining church building permits (IMBs) and Christians are pervasively discriminated against in all walks of life.

In September 2020 alone, ICC recorded three churches across the country with IMB issues. Fundamentalist Muslim neighbors or local government leaders have disrupted or removed worshippers. The churches were left to fend for themselves.

Apollinaris Darmawan, Suzethe Margaret, and Eka Trisusanti Toding represent just a few recent victims of Indonesia’s disastrous and one-sided blasphemy law (Law 1/PNPS/1965).

The law is only used to punish those who “blaspheme” against Islam or Muhammad. Muslims who make similar insulting comments against other religions face no repercussions. Those convicted under the laws can be imprisoned for years.

In addition, Indonesia is set to expand its abusive blasphemy laws as part of an overhaul of the country’s Criminal Code. Jokowi has ordered the parliament to postpone voting on the draft Criminal Code. The proposal will criminalize blasphemy, insults to a religious leader during a religious service, persuading someone to become a non-believer, or making noise near a house of worship. It is expected to be tabled soon in the parliament amid the pandemic.

Christians are experiencing a tidal wave of church closures. Last March, 15 Indonesians filed a lawsuit with the Supreme Court against the government for shuttering thousands of houses of worship. They claimed that the closures were discriminatory.

According to Human Rights Watch, the 15 men and women filing the suit said that the authorities had closed thousands of Christian churches. Under the 2006 discriminatory regulation, which built on the 1969 Joint Ministerial Decree on the Construction of Houses of Worship, regional governments are authorized to license the construction of houses of worship. Unsurprisingly, the lawsuit was dismissed by the Supreme Court.

While Jokowi pledged to abolish the decree during his campaign for the presidency in 2014, he never followed through. To this day, the decree remains a powerful tool to infringe on Christians’ right to worship. In fact, Vice President Ma’ruf Amin took part in drafting the regulations in 2005.

Beyond limitations to worship, some Christians suffer violence for their faith. Last September, a 67-year-old Protestant pastor was allegedly shot dead by the Indonesian Army during a search for missing weapons and the whereabouts of separatists in Indonesia’s restive Papua province. According to Indonesia’s human rights commission, Pastor Yeremia Zanambani was tortured before he was shot in a pigpen.

A cold blooded murder against religious clergy should have shocked the nation and led to an investigation. However, Jakarta was slow to respond to his killing and even Jokowi was silent on the death of Pastor Yeremia.

In contrast, a Muslim cleric, Syekh Ali Jaber, who was stabbed in the arm by a young man around the same time, received Jokowi’s acknowledgment and a pledge to thoroughly investigate.

All of these issues have eroded Christians’ faith in the government in general and in Jokowi specifically. He has failed to deliver on his campaign promise to bring justice and freedom to all of Indonesia’s citizens. The hope Indonesian Christians had for a tolerant society has faded. They are left to fend for themselves and work against the current of abusive governmental regulations.

ICC is on a mission to help persecuted Christians. Will you join us?