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 linked to al-Qaeda (including the group blamed for the 2002 Bali bombings in which 202 people were killed) and some linked to Islamic State. 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.

Rise in persecution of Christians since 2010

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.

On 13 May 2018, a family of Islamist extremists bombed three churches in Surabaya, East Java, killing thirteen people. The father of the family was head of the local branch of Jemaah Ansharut Daulah, an Indonesian militant network formed in 2015 that has pledged allegiance to Islamic State.

(Barnabas Fund, Church in Chains Global Guide, World Watch List, Voice of the Martyrs Canada)