In the city of Bekasi, Indonesia, outside Jakarta, a handful of Christians head to Sunday worship. But before they can reach their destination, they are stopped and surrounded by a large crowd of local Muslims who jeer at them and demand that they leave.
This is the Filadelfia congregation, a Lutheran group. They are ethnic Bataks from the neighboring island of Sumatra who have migrated to Bekasi, and they have been blocked from holding services on several occasions. Recently, a journalist who demonstrated in support of the congregation was beaten by an angry mob.
Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim majority nation and has drawn praise for its evolution into a vibrant democracy. It’s a country of more than 17,000 islands, with more than 300 ethnic groups who speak about 740 languages. But recent cases of persecution of religious minorities have led some to question whether Indonesia is still living up to its reputation for pluralism and tolerance.
The persecuted include atheists as well as minority Muslim sects, such as the Shia and Ahmadiyya. Hundreds of churches have been closed in recent years, including, most recently, 17 house churches this month in Aceh, the only province in Indonesia where Shariah, or Islamic law, is in effect.
Riot Police Intervene
Back in Bekasi, the standoff is getting tense. Truckloads of riot police arrived on the scene beforehand, but do nothing to separate the Christians and Muslims. Congregation leader Rev. Palti Panjaitan negotiates with security forces to let them pass.
“If my brothers here are the killing type, then I am ready to be killed,” he says quietly. “That’s it! Tell the police I am ready to be killed right here. If it’s a riot you’re worried about, then arrest the rioters, not me.”
The congregation is headed to pray in an empty lot where they have been barred from building a church. Outside the lot, signs say Muslims are ready to wage jihad, or holy war, against the Christian group. Muslim resident Irwan Taufik, blames the Christians for the confrontation. He says rejecting infidels is a legitimate form of jihad.
“Indonesia is famous for its harmony,” he says, wearing an embroidered shirt and a black felt cap. “But the Christians should have gathered the community leaders and clerics together and asked us, ‘Can we worship and build a church here?’ But if in fact the people are not willing and reject the request, then why must they insist?”
The police warn the Christians that they can no longer guarantee their safety and the Christians relent, turning their motorcycles around and heading home.
An Intolerant Minorty
Panjaitan complains that even though his congregation has fulfilled all the requirements, the local government in Bekasi will not grant it permission to build a church.
He says they won’t even obey a Supreme Court ruling affirming their right to build it. He adds that Muslims and Christians usually get along fine here, but hard-line Islamist groups have been stirring up confrontation.
“The majority of the Muslims here are tolerant, but they are easily influenced by the intolerant,” he says. “Actually, tolerant people in Indonesia are in the majority, but they are passive. I wish they would be more active and say ‘no’ to the intolerance which is now increasing in Bekasi.”
Panjaitan particularly blames the militant Islamic Defenders Front, which, according to police records, has been involved in 34 cases of violence and destruction in the past two years.
Last week, the front persuaded authorities to deny a permit for Lady Gaga to perform in Jakarta. The week before, they disrupted a speech by liberal Canadian Muslim author Irshad Manji. Manji was assaulted and a member of her staff was injured. Manji says this has changed her view of Indonesia since her last trip here in 2008.
“Four years ago, I held a book launch here that attracted both ultra-conservative Muslims and Muslim transsexuals, and each of them had their say,” she recalls. “And four years later, the center of Islamic pluralism has become just another cesspool of intimidation.”
Elaine Pearson, deputy director of the Asia Division at the New York-based Human Rights Watch, says that Indonesia’s backsliding on religious tolerance reflects a weak rule of law, which results in impunity for those who persecute religious minorities. This, in turn, creates a climate of fear among ordinary Indonesians.
“Even senior government officials have shown quite openly that they protect groups like the Islamic Defenders Front,” Pearson says. “They’re very powerful, they’re very influential and people don’t really want to be seen as working against them.”
Raising Old Worries
Since the birth of the Indonesian nation in 1945, there have always been doubts about whether such a disparate collection of peoples and cultures could actually hold together.
The problem of intolerance raises this question once again. Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has appealed to the public for tolerance, but he has declined to intervene on behalf of minorities.
Barred from holding their Sunday service in Bekasi, the Filadelfia congregation troops into downtown Jakarta. They set up a generator, speakers and an electric keyboard. Then they pray, sing and protest, right across the street from the presidential palace.