Teachers Appeal Christianization Conviction in Indonesia

Monday, September 26, 2005

Legal action gives them opportunity to clarify constitutional rights.

by Sarah Page

DUBLIN, September 23 (Compass) – Three women accused of “Christianization” have appealed the conviction handed down by an Indonesian court on September 1.

Rebekka Zakaria, Eti Pangesti and Ratna Bangun were sentenced to three years in jail after members of the Muslim Clerics Council (MUI) in Indramayu district, West Java, accused them of trying to convert Muslim children.

The judges pronounced the Sunday school teachers guilty of breaching Indonesia’s 2002 Child Protection Act, saying they had used “deceitful conduct, a series of lies and enticements to seduce children to change their religion against their wills.”

The appeal, lodged at the High Court in Bandung within a week of sentencing, will give the government and higher courts an opportunity to “clarify constitutional rights, condemn religious persecution and make a stand for justice,” in the words of Elizabeth Kendal of the World Evangelical Alliance.

One of the protestors, a member of the Communication Body of Mosques’ Youth and Teenagers of Indonesia, said after the court session on September 1 that he welcomed the verdict. He also said that his and other organizations would continue campaigning against Christian activity and “illegal” churches in the district of Indramayu in coming months.

Muslim extremists have forced at least 60 house churches in West Java to close over the past year. A ministerial decree requires all Indonesian churches to apply for a permit to operate. In practice, however, most local councils refuse to grant these permits on the grounds that the applicant church is in a majority-Muslim neighborhood.

Many church groups therefore meet in private homes – including the Christian Church of David’s Camp, pastored by Zakaria and attended by Pangesti and Bangun, until it too was forced to close in December 2004.

Absent Witnesses

Zakaria, Pangesti and Bangun had launched their “Happy Sunday” Christian education program in September 2003, at the request of a school in the Harguelis sub-district of Indramayu. The school had asked them to conduct the program for Christian children in compliance with the National Education System Bill that came into effect in June 2003.

The program proved popular, and Muslim children soon asked to join the programs and outings. Jeff Hammond of Bless Indonesia Today explained in a report on September 2 that initially, an elderly Muslim woman asked if her grandchildren could attend the program. This woman and her daughter were both prostitutes, and she did not want her children to go down the same path.

As more Muslim children asked to join the program, Zakaria, Pangesti and Bangun insisted that their families give prior permission; this condition was duly met, although consent was verbal rather than written.

Some Muslim parents attended a few of the sessions and had their photos taken with their children for the church records. When the trial began, however, the Muslim parents were intimidated by the furor generated by local Muslim radicals and refused to testify in support of the accused.

Several of the witnesses called to testify for the prosecution failed to appear, including the Muslim woman who first sent her grandchildren to the program.

At each hearing, truckloads of Muslim youth were brought in to demonstrate both inside and outside the courtroom. Many carried banners calling for a guilty verdict. As their leaders spoke through megaphones, the crowd responded, “Kill them! Shoot them! Hang Rebekka!”

While approximately 85 percent of all Indonesians are Muslims, the percentage jumps to 99 percent in Indramayu – although the region was once predominantly Christian.

According to a local human rights activist, a church in Harguelis sub-district was destroyed in 1947 and the pastor executed. Following this incident, many Christian homes were burned down throughout the 1950s, leading to a steady decline in the Christian population.

Copyright 2005 Compass Direct