Indonesian Church Closing Sparks Public Debate

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Survey reveals 40.8 percent of Muslims oppose Christian churches in their neighborhoods.

by Sarah Page

DUBLIN, November 18 (Compass) -- Members of a Protestant church in Indonesia are still waiting for resolution on an incident with Muslim neighbors, who attacked the church on October 24. The church was then closed down by authorities.

According to Komintra News, the violent incident was the third since the Nusantara Indonesia Christian Church (Gereja Kristen Injili Nusantara) was established in 1997 in Puri Kosambi, Karawang.

Choir members had gathered at the church on October 23 to practice for services the following day. However, Muslim neighbors complained about the noise, bringing the practice to a halt.

On the following evening, a police officer approached the pastor who lived at the church and warned him to flee. Not long after the family had left the premises, a mob of approximately 500 people turned up and began to vandalize the church.

The attackers were identified in press reports as members of the Front Pembela Islam (FPI), or Islamic Defenders’ Front. Komintra reported broken chairs and damage to the roof of the building. The sound system, pews, doors and windows were also damaged, according to Voice of the Martyrs.

Since the attack, the church has been unable to resume worship services. On October 25, members of the FPI approached local authorities and asked that the church be closed permanently, even though the Regional Religious Affairs office had granted the congregation permission to hold services.

At press time, the police are investigating whether there are legal grounds to close down the church permanently.

On November 12, Komintra reported that Pastor Suhardi and his family were still living in temporary accommodations while church members attended services at another church in the same town.

Meanwhile, the results of a survey released on November 11 indicate that a significant percentage of Indonesians are intolerant toward people of other faiths. The Freedom Institute, the Liberal Islam Network and the Center for Islamic and Community Studies of the Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University jointly conducted the survey of over 1,000 respondents who were interviewed on the first three days of November in all 32 provinces of Indonesia.

The survey results, published in The Jakarta Post, showed that 40.8 percent of Muslim respondents do not agree with Christians conducting worship services in a majority Muslim neighborhood. However, only 24.8 percent oppose the presence of Christian teachers in public schools.

The survey also found that most Muslims are opposed to radical interpretations of Islamic teaching and to radical groups that promote violence.

“The rate of approval for actions taken by radical groups like the Islamic Defenders’ Front, the Indonesian Mujahidin Council (MMI) and regional terror network Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) was considerably low,” the survey said.

Only 15.9 percent supported the terror attacks carried out by convicted Bali bombers Imam Samudra and Amrozi bin Nurhasyim. Fifty-nine percent of the respondents disapproved of the attacks while another 25.2 percent declined to give an opinion.

Researcher Sjaiful Mujani said the results showed the public was ambivalent about religious differences.

“Although they stand against acts of terror carried out on behalf of Muslims in general, a large number of Muslims in the country are intolerant toward those who subscribe to different religious beliefs, especially Christians,” he told The Jakarta Post.

Meanwhile, an editorial in The Jakarta Post on November 11 said the forced closure of the Sang Timur Catholic School in nearby Tangerang had provoked a heated debate on the freedom of religion as guaranteed by the 1945 constitution. (See Compass Direct, “Indonesian Catholic School Closed for Three Weeks,” November 1, 2004.)

“This time the government can no longer sweep the discord under the carpet and pretend nothing serious happened,” the editorial stated.

“The Sang Timur incident ... was an ugly display of religious discrimination in which the majority bullies the minority and the state just lets it happen.

“The local Muslim residents appointed themselves the sheriff on the pretext that they were legally enforcing the disputed 1969 joint ministerial decree that requires local residents’ endorsement whenever a place of worship is to be built.”

The writer also accused the government of aggravating the problem by revoking a permit granted 12 years ago for Catholic Mass to be held at the Sang Timur School.

The new Minister of Religious Affairs, M. Maftuh Basyuni, insists on maintaining Decree No. 1/BER/mdn-mag/1969, despite opposition from religious minorities. Under the terms of the decree, “Building a church is practically impossible,” the editorial continued, “but they are subject to harassment, or even violence, if they worship [in a non-authorized building].”

A new religious tolerance bill drafted under Megawati’s government has also stirred controversy. Opponents say the bill, if passed, will legalize discrimination and increase religious tensions.

Meanwhile, a new conflict has emerged between Muslims and Catholics at the port of Labuan Bajo on Flores island, Nusa Tenggara, according to a November 10 Agence France-Presse (AFP) report. Father Egis Rada Masri, who teaches at the island’s Catholic seminary, said a recent influx of Muslims and a new mosque construction project have fueled concerns among the Catholic majority on the island.

“Some want to use Labuan Bajo as a door for expanding Islamic influence,” Masri told AFP. “We see here new faces, militants coming from Makassa or Bima, wearing white dress and white caps. They are missionaries of Islam.”

Residents on Flores island said they believed Yusuf Kalla, running mate of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and newly appointed as vice-president of Indonesia, was sympathetic to the cause of Islamic militants.

“Yusuf Kalla is linked to dark stories about burning churches,” one resident said.

At least 80 percent of Indonesia’s 215 million people are Muslims. Until recently, many Muslims have held to the national policy of pancasila, or tolerance towards other faiths. However in recent years, a new emphasis on radical Islamic teaching has strained relationships between Muslims and Christians in many parts of the country.