The Republic of Indonesia is a vast country made up of over 17,000 islands (6,000 inhabited), with a population of 250 million people. It has the world’s largest Muslim population. Indonesia is ethnically diverse, with hundreds of local languages spoken as well as Indonesian, and has a long history of pluralism and inter-religious harmony, reflected in Pancasila, the state philosophy of unity, justice and democracy.
Indonesia lies in a geologically volatile region – the tsunami in 2004 killed about 200,000 Indonesians. A Dutch colony from 1605, it was occupied by Japan during WW2. The nationalist leader Sukarno declared independence in 1945 and the Dutch transferred sovereignty in 1949, after an armed struggle.
General Suharto came to power in 1965 and imposed an authoritarian regime that fostered corruption and ethnic conflict, while increasing the role of Islam in public life. He fell from power after riots in 1998. The ensuing transition to democracy led to the first direct presidential election, in 2004, won by former army general Yudhoyono. Improved security, political stability and economic growth followed. President Yudhoyono cultivated an image as a corruption fighter with moral integrity, but he was criticised for failing to protect the rights of minorities, including Christians.
The election of President Joko Widodo in 2014 was welcomed by Christians. He promised equal rights for religious minorities and promised new laws to protect them from attack and discrimination. Corruption persists, however, and there is much ethnic and religious conflict. Several provinces have demanded independence, encouraged by East Timor’s successful breakaway in 1999.
Militant Islamic groups have grown in strength in recent years, some accused of links with al-Qaeda, including the group blamed for the 2002 Bali bombings in which 202 people were killed. The spread of extremist Muslim ideology has led to rising intolerance against religious minorities (including Ahmadis, Buddhists, Hindus, Confucians and Baha’is as well as Christians) and also atheists. Local and national government has been inactive, and sometimes complicit, in the gradual erosion of rights.
Christians in Indonesia
Christians make up about 16% of the population. There has been huge growth in the number of evangelicals over the past fifty years, from 1.3 million to 13 million. The constitution guarantees freedom of religion, and many Indonesian Christians are free to practise their faith, but there are problems in some areas, especially Aceh, West Java, Jakarta and Sulawesi. While the national laws uphold religious freedom, sharia-inspired laws are being passed in more and more localities, and new Christians from a Muslim background often face rejection and persecution.
One of the major problems facing Christians is the continued forcible closure of churches – hundreds have been closed in recent years by the enforcement of discriminatory government regulations. The law governing applications for permits to establish and operate places of worship stipulates that a majority of neighbours in the area must agree to a church’s existence, and permission is sometimes denied or withdrawn after complaints from Muslims. Islamists have coerced some local governments into banning church activities. In some areas, churches have been attacked and set on fire by Muslim extremists.
Intolerance toward religious minorities intensified in 2010. Violations of Christians’ freedom rose sharply, especially in West Java, where incidents included attacks on churches, banning services and preventing churches from establishing places of worship. Police and local government officials generally fail to control the extremist groups responsible, although there have been exceptions, with some violators prosecuted. There are also many deadly attacks on members of minority Muslim sects, notably Ahmadis.
In January 2011, the Minister of Religious Affairs claimed that the main cause of religious tension is that some groups do not want to meet the legal requirements for establishing houses of worship. The requirements include obtaining the approval of at least 60 people from the local community and the village head, and having at least 90 church members. These are difficult for small churches to meet, and local governments routinely stall the paperwork of those who do apply.
In February 2011, more than 1,000 Muslim protesters stormed a courthouse and burned two churches in central Java after a Christian was sentenced to five years in jail for distributing leaflets deemed insulting to Islam. The crowd considered the sentence too lenient and demanded the death penalty. They attacked the court building, torched two local churches and damaged a third.
In 2014, more than thirty churches were closed.
In 2015, over 20 churches were forcibly closed, destroyed or torched, with over 8,000 Christians forced to flee their homes. In October, Islamists in the sharia-ruled province of Aceh burned three churches to the ground before the authorities conceded to their demands to tear down churches without the required permits. The authorities then destroyed twelve more church buildings.
On 13 November 2016, three-year-old Intan Marbun died following a bomb attack on Oikumene Church in Samarinda, provincial capital of Borneo’s East Kalimantan province. The attacker was a Muslim extremist suspected of having links with Islamic State. Four of Intan’s friends were injured. Three months previously, a suicide bomber had failed to detonate his vest at a crowded Roman Catholic church in Sumatra. He injured a priest with an axe.
On 9 May 2017, North Jakarta District Court sentenced Jakarta’s outgoing governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian, to two years in prison for blasphemy, in a move that shocked many Indonesians and led to widespread protests.
(Barnabas Fund, Church in Chains Global Guide, World Watch List, Voice of the Martyrs Canada)
On 9 May 2017, North Jakarta District Court sentenced Jakarta’s outgoing governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama, an ethnic Chinese Christian, to two years in prison for blasphemy.
Jakarta’s governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (pictured), popularly known as “Ahok”, has been accused of blasphemy. His trial began on 13 December.
Three-year-old Intan Marbun (pictured) died following a bomb attack on her church on 13 November by an Islamic extremist, and four of her friends were injured.
Dr. Rebekka Zakaria (pictured right), Eti Pangesti and Ratna Bangun were released from prison earlier today. The three Christian women were released on parole ‚Äì having served two years of a three year sentence handed out for running a ‘Sunday School’ that included some local Muslim children.
The women left the prison at 9am local time and went immediately to be reunited with their families. Rebekka, aged 49, is married and has a daughter and son at university. She and her husband also have an adopted adult daughter Linda, who regularly brought food to the women while they were in prison.
Eti, aged 45, is married to Sutrisno and they have two daughters (aged 21 and 15) and a son, aged eight.
Ratna, aged 40, was looking forward to a reunion with her husband Sembiring and her two sons, Joshua (10) and Christopher (8).
Throughout their imprisonment, the ladies remained powerful witnesses for their Christian faith. They transformed the prison by cleaning washrooms and toilets, scrubbing cells, working on the garden and even painting in bright yellow and blue the walls of the room they used for church meetings.
Within the women’s section, quarrelling was reduced and because of Rebekka, Eti and Ratna’s calming influence the guards overruled prison protocol and allowed each woman to have her own knife and spoon in their cell.
The case of these ladies sparked concern among the Christian community worldwide resulting in a letter-writing campaign and prayer vigils in many countries including Ireland. (Open Doors)
On November 22nd, an Indonesian court denied the appeal of three Sunday school teachers convicted of preaching to Muslim children in western Java.
The three women, Rebecca Zakaria, Eti Pangesti and Ratna Bangun, are serving a three-year prison term after being convicted of proselytizing Muslim children who attended their Sunday school class. Under Indonesia law they can make only one more appeal to have their sentences reduced. The women, who have been in prison for six months, maintain that they have been wrongly convicted.
Rebecca, Eti and Ratna were recently visited in prison by Jay Esteban (Christian World News) who reports: Dr. Rebecca Zakaria said, “God is using us boldly to minister to other inmates here. We have led two women already and even shared to a Muslim woman. It’s hard being here but I know I am pleasing God by doing His work.”
Ratna Bangun misses her children, 9-year old Joshua and 7-year old Christopher. She says her children hardly ever have the opportunity to visit her, since they are studying in another state. But, her husband visits twice a month.Ratna said, “My children are sometimes crying, asking when I will be back. But they get comforted when they know that their mom is doing Jesus‚Äô work.”
Eti Pangesti owns the house where the three women held the Sunday school programme that was attended by Christian and Muslim children. In the area, in Harleguis, we spoke to Eti’s family. We asked 10 year old Leila how she feels about her mother being in prison. She said, “I‚Äôm proud of my mom because she is doing this for God.” I saw some of the materials, such as colouring books, used for the Happy Sunday school Program these three women taught. About 20 – 25 children would come over and praise and worship God.
Right now, this place may seem abandoned, but once they get out of prison Eti, Ratna and Rebecca are determined to continue teaching God’s Word, not only to children but also to their fellow Indonesians who are not Christians. This, they believe, is God’s will for their lives. (Christian World News)