Indonesian Sunday School Teachers Case Goes to High Court

Thursday, August 4, 2005

Judge scolds the accused; courtroom spectators heckle them.

by Sarah Page

DUBLIN, August 2 (Compass) -- Hostile spectators filled a courtroom in West Java, Indonesia on July 28 as the fifth hearing in a controversial trial against three Christian women began. The women were accused of attempting to convert Muslim children through a Christian education program.

Rebekka Zakaria, Eti Pangesti and Ratna Bangun insisted in court that the children had attended the classes with their parents’ consent.

At the close of the hearing, the lead prosecutor announced that the case would be transferred to the High Court. This move could considerably lengthen the trial process. The judge has scheduled the next hearing for August 11.

During court proceedings, the prosecutor questioned the women about the activities and materials used in their “Happy Sunday” classes for children from Babakan Jati elementary school.

Bangun explained that the children prayed, read the Bible, sang and sometimes colored pictures.

In response, Judge Hasby J. Tholib said the women should never have allowed Muslim children to attend the program. The three women are formally charged with breaching Indonesia’s Child Protection Act.

Bangun and Zakaria replied that they had been completely honest with the parents of children attending the program, and that there was no hidden agenda.

The women were also accused of handing out gifts and snacks as bribes to the children. When Zakaria said the gifts were simply acts of compassion, Muslim hecklers in the courtroom shouted, “Liar! Liar!”

The three women were arrested on May 13 after members of the local Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI or Muslim Clerics Council) accused them of attempting to convert Muslim children. Zakaria is the pastor of the Christian Church of David’s Camp (GKKD) in Harguelis, Indramayu district, West Java. The other two women are church elders.

In August 2003, the local Babakan Jati elementary school asked the church to provide a Christian education program for the small number of Christian students attending the school, in compliance with the National Education System Bill that came into effect in June of that year.

The women launched the Minggu Ceria (Happy Sunday) program on Sept. 9, 2003, providing education for 10 Christian children.

Within weeks, several Muslim children had asked to join the program. Zakaria said that the Muslim children attended with the verbal consent of their parents, and that most of the children had photos taken with their parents for church records.

When Muslim leaders lodged an official complaint, however, these parents refused to testify in support of the women. A source who prefers to remain anonymous told Compass, “None of them dare to come forward to say that they personally allowed their children to attend the program out of fear from their own Muslim brethren, especially now that the trial has started.”

The morning of the most recent hearing, two truckloads of Muslim youth arrived. As the women left the courtroom, according to one observer, the youths shouted insults at them and called for the judge not to be “fooled” by their testimony.

Four truckloads of Muslim youth were also present at the first hearing on June 30. Students from a nearby Islamic boarding school stood in front of the courtroom shouting “Allahu akbar! (God is great!)” and “Death to Christianity!” They also demanded a guilty verdict and the maximum penalty for the accused.

Anyone found guilty of attempting to convert children under the Child Protection Act of 2002 may be imprisoned for up to five years, and/or fined up to 100 million rupiah ($10,226) -- not 1 billion rupiah ($103,600) as previously reported.

Another observer who attended the first hearing commented, “The whole city stands against them in hatred.”

West Java is known as a staunchly Muslim province. Christian communities are often refused permits to build churches or to worship in rented facilities -- and therefore meet together in private homes. Muslim leaders have forced many of these “house fellowships” -- including the GKKD church run by Zakaria -- to close. Just last week, Muslim leaders forced six house churches in the sub-district of Cimahi, West Java, to cease meeting for worship.

False charges against Christians in Indonesia are not without precedent. In 1999, three Christian men in Padang, West Sumatra, along with two of their wives and a female church secretary, all received jail sentences for allegedly abducting and abusing a 16-year-old Muslim girl who had sought shelter; she claimed her uncle had threatened to kill her. Officials produced little evidence to support the charges, and sources in Indonesia believe the Christians were the victims of an elaborate sting operation.

None of the women were required to serve their six-year sentences. Two of the men, the Rev. Robert Marthinus and Yanuardi Koto, were released on parole in 2003. The man who opened his home to the girl, Salmon Ongirwalu, had received a 10-year prison sentence but was released on probation last May 26.


Eleven Fatwas released in Indonesia

On July 29, the national Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI or Muslim Clerics Council) issued 11 fatwas or Islamic instructions for the country’s 85 percent Muslim majority.

The fatwas instructed Muslims to consider all other faiths as “wrong,” and prohibited praying with people of other faiths or marrying them.

“This is a reminder for Muslims to follow the religion in a correct way and not to try to deviate from the principles,” Ma’aruf Amin, chief of the MUI’s Fatwa Commission, told Reuters.

More moderate Muslims immediately condemned the fatwas as a rejection of pancasila, a policy of religious tolerance enshrined in the Indonesian constitution.

The 11 fatwas are listed below:

1. Religious teachings influenced by pluralism, liberalism and secularism are against Islam. The fatwa states that Muslims must consider their religion to be the true one [sic] religion, and to consider other faiths as wrong.

2. Ahmadiyah, an Islamic group that does not recognize Muhammad as the last prophet, is a heretical sect, and its followers are murtad (apostate).

3. Mixed marriages between people of different faiths are haram (forbidden under Islamic law).

4. Women are forbidden from leading prayers when men are present in the congregation. Women are only allowed to lead prayers in an all-female assemblage.

5. Joint prayers performed with people of other faiths are not recognized in Islam. Saying “Amen” to prayers led by a non-Muslim is forbidden.

6. Islamic law on inheritance is not applicable for non-Muslim family members.

7. Islam recognizes capital punishment for serious criminal offenses, and the state can apply such punishments in the judiciary system.

8. Engaging, believing and practicing in shamanism and fortune-telling are forbidden. The publication and dissemination of these practices, such as through television shows, are also forbidden.

9. Determining goodness for the public under sharia (Islamic law) must not violate Islamic texts, and the only institutions that have the right to determine such goodness are those possessing sharia competence.

10. Any violation of intellectual property rights is haram. Intellectual property rights that are protected under Islamic law are those that do not go against sharia.

11. The government cannot revoke the ownership of a person’s personal property arbitrarily or by coercion.

Copyright 2005 Compass Direct