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Saturday, December 22, 2007

Dec 21, 2007 - Religious minorities in Indonesia

Dec 21, 2007
MATA JELI: A PERSPECTIVE ON INDONESIAN AFFAIRS
Protecting religious minorities
By Bruce Gale
ABU Dujana, the self-proclaimed military commander of the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) terrorist group, went on trial in a South Jakarta District Court on Dec 12.
But Dujana was not charged with any specific bombing incident. Instead, public prosecutor Bayu Adinugroho argued that the terrorist leader was guilty of stockpiling weapons and conspiring to attack Christians in conflict-torn Poso in the eastern Indonesian province of Central Sulawesi.

The focus on the minority Christian community as the victim of extremist violence may have been coincidental. After all, most observers believe there is insufficient evidence to link Dujana to the JI's bombing campaigns in other parts of the country.

But the charge did seem to go some way towards addressing renewed criticism that the authorities are either unable or unwilling to protect religious minorities from extremist violence.

'The state, whose job it is to protect religious freedom and the right to practise one's faith,' said an editorial in the Jakarta Post last month, 'has failed us on so many occasions that it raises questions about the commitment of those in the government to uphold the Constitution.'

But not all the news has been bad. As often happens in Indonesia, progress on one front is frequently accompanied by a deterioration somewhere else.

On Christmas Eve 2000, a coordinated series of bombings of churches in Jakarta and eight other cities killed 18 people and injured many others. Since then, the approach of the Christmas season also brings forth speculation about another spate of bombings.

But Christmas has been a peaceful affair for some years, and Christian leaders are not expecting any trouble this time around.

'The government is more alert now,' noted retired general Herman Mantiri last week, when I asked him about the security situation during Christmas.

General Mantiri, a devout Christian, was formerly chief of staff of Indonesia's Armed Forces. Last year, thousands of police and army personnel guarded churches across the country during the Christmas and New Year period. Media reports suggest a similar move will be mounted this year.

Official statistics show that while Indonesia's estimated 234.6 million population (as of July this year) is overwhelmingly Muslim, about 10 per cent are Christian.

What really worries Christian leaders is not so much the possibility of bombings during the Christmas season as the increase in extremist attacks during the year.

Mr Theophilus Bela, secretary-general of the Committee for Religious Peace, told me last week that more than 70 churches have either been closed down or have come under attack by extremist groups in the past 12 months. Most were Protestant churches with small congregations located in West Java, but Catholic churches were also hit.

Radical Muslim groups involved in forcibly closing down churches include the Front Pembela Islam (Islam Defenders Front) and the Aliansi Gerakan Ant Pemurtadan (Anti-Apostasy Alliance). Their defence is that the buildings hit are not authorised for use as churches.

By law, Indonesian church groups must have a worship permit. But Christian leaders say a joint regulation issued by the Religious Affairs Ministry and the Home Affairs Minister last year makes it almost impossible to obtain one.

The rule stipulates that a house of worship can be built only if it is approved by at least 60 local residents and the congregation has at least 90 members. A separate building permit is also needed. But Christian leaders argue that, even when these rules are met, subdistrict heads are reluctant to grant the permit.

For this reason, many Christians worship in private homes or rented facilities, some of which have also come under attack.

Apart from general references to the growing influence of fundamentalist Islam, few observers can explain the recent surge in religiously motivated violence.

Ms Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group in Jakarta says the concentration of militant activity in West Java is consistent with the area's radical tradition, which dates back to the formation of the Darul Islam (Islamic State) movement in the 1950s.

Yet another factor, she argues, is the apparent willingness of the authorities to turn a blind eye to the violence.

One puzzle is the fact that most attacks have taken place in regencies such as Kuningan, Tasikmalaya and Indramayu. Industrial areas such as Bekasi and Tangerang, where an influx of workers from poor Christian areas in the outer islands over the past 10 to 15 years might have been expected to produce religious tensions, have been quiet by comparison.

And while radicals often cite alleged Christian proselytising as the source of their ire, many non-evangelical churches have also been targeted.

Also, Christians are not the only victims. Last month, al-Qiyadah al-Islamiyah sect leader Ahmad Moshaddeq declared his own teachings false after a mob flattened his mosque in the same regency.

And on Tuesday, a mob attacked a complex in a village in Kuningan occupied by the Ahmadiyah sect. A small mosque and dozens of houses were reportedly damaged.

A report last year by the US Department of State on democracy, human rights and labour noted that, although often present, police almost never try to prevent violence by radical groups. This reluctance to act puzzles local and international observers, especially since the Muhammadiyah and the Nahdatul Ulama, both influential Islamic organisations known for their moderate views, are on record as condemning violence.

'One of the biggest failures of the Yudhoyono government has been its inability to protect minority groups,' notes Ms Jones.

Official indecision is one explanation, with critics accusing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of being slow to make up his mind, especially on controversial issues.

Another possibility is that Dr Yudhoyono, whose secular nationalist Democrat Party won a mere 7.5 per cent of the votes in the 2004 legislative election, is worried about alienating the Muslim vote ahead of the 2009 presidential and parliamentary polls.

This theory gains strength from the way in which his administration has given greater power to the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (Council of Muslim Religious Scholars, or MUI) to decide which Muslim groups are 'officially deviant'. Until recently, MUI was hardly taken seriously by anyone.

But one thing is for sure: the issue of church closures is unlikely to fade just yet.

Last week, Protestant and Catholic leaders took their complaints about church closures directly to the Indonesian Commission of Human Rights, prompting officials to say they intend to examine both the violence and the restrictive regulations.

bruceg@sph.com.sg

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