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George Evers {*}

Endangered Coexistence

Muslim Majority and Christian Minority in Indonesia


From: Herder-Korrespondenz, 2006/5, P. 249-255
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    Indonesia, the country with the most Muslims in the world, was for a long time regarded as the classic example for a peaceful living together of the Muslim majority and non-Muslim not least Christian minorities. The picture has changed: For years Muslim organizations have been pushing for a stronger Islamization of society; time and again it comes to bloody conflicts with religious background.


Since the end of the government of President Hadji Mohamed Suharto (1966-1998) Indonesia has gone through a phase that was coined by economic crises and crises in the field of domestic affairs that endangered the political stability of the country. The each time only shortly governing presidents Bacharudin Habibie (1998-1999) - still appointed by Suharto, Abdurrahman Wahid (1999-2001) and Megawati Sukarnoputri (2001-2004) did not succeed in getting the knack of the large problems of a democratic new start in Indonesia.

Under the authoritarian government of President Suharto the tensions between the different groups of peoples, between Christians and Muslims and between poor and rich in Indonesian society had been suppressed, and they were simply not allowed to be mentioned in public and in the press. For also during the rule of Suharto there had already been cases of destruction of Christian churches and religiously motivated acts of violence.

Larger unrests began then soon after the end of the Suharto regime, when it first in the large cities came to excesses against the rich Chinese merchants. From 1999 on the enemy changed, and violent conflicts between Christian and Muslim militias in Ambon on the Moluccas and in South-Sulawesi began, in which there were many casualties on both sides.

These acts of violence originated from the "resettling politics" (transmigrasi) pursued for many decades by Suharto's government: Muslims were systematically resettled with priority into areas inhabited by Christians on the Moluccas and in South-Sulawesi as well as in Papua, as a result of which the religious, social, economical and political conditions were changed to the Christians' disadvantage. The political direction of impact of the religiously motivated acts of violence aimed at a general destabilization in the country, and at a stirring up of mutual hate and distrust among Christians and Muslims. Apart from the violent arguments between the religious communities, radical Muslim groups increased the assassination attempts that were directed against Indonesia's attachment to the West and against international tourism.



Since 20 October 2004 Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono governs the Republic of Indonesia as the sixth president, after he had asserted himself with a clear majority of 60 per cent in the second ballot against the former president Megawati Sukarnoputri. In his present term of office Yudhoyono, who came from the military, has been able to bring peace and stability into the governmental work.


No longer a Tolerant Presentable Country

Also in the struggle against terrorism President Yudhoyono can present first successes. After the second terrorist attack on the island Bali in October 2005 the security authorities succeeded relatively fast in smashing the net of the terrorists, and in killing Azahari Husin, the leader of the terror group Jemaah Islamiah. Vice-president Jussuf Kalla, who has good connections to the Muslim groups, used his contacts, in order to induce all large Muslim organizations, including the radical ones, to a clear condemnation of the suicide assassination attempts as acts incompatible with Islam.

For a long time the Islam in Indonesia was considered as very moderate, and the relationship of the Muslims to the Christian minority as good and neighbourly. After all, the Islam in Indonesia differs in many respects from that in the Arab heartlands. True, with a portion of 88 per cent of the population Indonesia is the country with the largest number of Muslims in the world. But these almost 200 million of Indonesian Muslims are little homogeneous in the way they live their religion.

The majority of those who are officially listed in the Muslim statistics do practise the most important Islamic rituals and regulations, but they are rather outwardly affected by Islam. In their hearts they feel most strongly obliged to the Javanese religiosity, ethics and customs. By this traditional attitude the Abangans, as that group of Muslims is called, differ from the Shantis who take their belonging to Islam quite seriously, and fulfil, if possible, all the obligations that are given with it. Conversions of Muslims to Christianity, which are relatively frequent in Indonesia and are up to now legally possible if they happen without purposeful proselytizing, usually come from the group of the Abangans.

Of great importance are the two Islamic mass organizations which are rivalling with each other. On the one side the Muhammadiya, that was created in 1912 as reform movement of the Islam in Indonesia and today numbers 30 million members. The other grouping, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), founded in 1926, is rather considered as traditional and conservative, and is, in terms of figures, with 40 million members the strongest Islamic organization in the country.

Indonesia was once considered as a country presentable as example of tolerance and communication, and as model for a peaceful living together of members of different religious communities. In the last ten years that picture has fundamentally changed. Today the country with the many islands, ethnic communities and religions appears increasingly in the headlines of the international press, when it is about religiously motivated acts of violence against persons and church institutions. In spite of united efforts on the part of the religious leaders in the country, who together appealed to the population to desist from violence and organized training courses for peaceful interreligious living together, or by other measures tried to restore harmony and peace - the acts of violence continue.

Hard-liners on Muslim side advocate the introduction of the Scharia law in the whole country, and with it disconcert the members of the religious minorities. Since the days of the Afghanistan War groups of radical Muslims - by their assassination attempts in the country - translate into action the training that they once got as terrorists for the Al-Quaida-net or for other extremist groups. Christian fundamentalist preachers and missionaries cause tensions also with moderate Muslims, who strictly reject the aggressive proselytizing of this group as an attack on Islam.

There was also violent criticism of some Christian relief organizations that were accused of having misused the Tsunami disaster for proselytizing. To the Tsunami from 26 December 2004 the world community reacted with an up to then rarely seen donation readiness. But human solidarity was not the only motive of all those organisations that had taken part in the relief actions. There were also groupings as the Christian organization World Help (originating from the USA) that wanted for example to bring 300 children from Aceh into the USA. This plan was sharply criticized by Muslims, because they assumed behind it the intention to convert the Indonesian children in the USA to Christianity. Also the Indonesian Bishops' Conference and the community of the Protestant churches in Indonesia sharply rejected the abuse of humane assistance for the purpose of hidden missionary intentions, so that World Help refrained from its project.



Purposefully aimed at any form of Christian mission activity is the "Union of the Anti-Apostasy-Movement" (Aliansi Gerakan Anti Pemutradan), an umbrella organisation of twenty seven Islamic organizations. It is responsible for many closures and also destructions of churches in Java and directs its activities carefully against any form of Christian mission activity. These are the groupings that stand up for the obligatorily introduction of the Scharia laws in the whole country.


Efforts towards the Introduction of the Scharia

The debate on the introduction of the Scharia began already immediately after the independence of Indonesia in 1945, when traditional Muslim circles tried to introduce into the Indonesian Constitution an appropriate passage. By it it was about the insertion of a preamble into the constitution (the so-called Jakarta Charter) which was to prescribe that Muslim citizens had to fulfil their religious obligations. The decision at that time to make the new independent Indonesia a multi-cultural and multi-religious state led to the introduction of the Pancasila. Its five principles: nationalism, humanism, democracy, social justice and monotheism were obligatory for all religions and were to guarantee tolerance and a peaceful living together of the different religions in the country.

Indonesia understands itself as a secular national state. Actually this means that there must not be any separate treatments discriminating individual groups for ethnical or religious reasons. In spite of intensified efforts and propaganda of Islamic circles a clear majority of the Indonesian population holds on to the decision made at that time, and still decidedly refuses the introduction of the Scharia.

An introduction of the Scharia would change the legal position of the family, lead to the introduction of religious courts, make the prescribed social contributions for the poor (zakat) obligatory at least for Muslims and influence the banking. To strengthen its own position the government of President Suharto had supported a number of Islamic initiatives that should prepare the way for a gradual Islamizing of society, as for example: the establishment of the Union of Muslim Intellectuals (ICMI) in 1990, the collection of Islamic laws (1990), the organisation of an Islamic Culture Festival (1991), the establishment of an Islamic bank (1992) and the closing of the national lottery (1993).

For some years an increasing Islamizing of the society can actually be observed in Indonesia. That becomes apparent for example in the streetscape, where the number of women wearing the veil has greatly increased. Regionally there are time and again attempts to introduce the Scharia obligatorily at least for Muslims. Most affected by these measures are the women.

In some districts, for example in Banten on Java, Padang, West-Sumatra, West-Java and South-Sulawesi, additive laws and regulations were introduced regulating the dressing of women, and inflicting draconic punishments on women that in some way in public arouse suspicion of sexual liberality. At present a campaign against pornography is running - actually a not much exciting affair, if it were not used by Islamist circles to generally carry through dress regulations of the strict trend of Islam for all in the country.

The importance of religion, religious practices and customs in general has increased. In the Indonesian public and particularly in the press these tendencies are criticized, and the observance of the separation of religion and state is demanded. According to the constitution only the central government can issue regulations in religious questions; that right is not conceded to the regional governments. Effect had also the announcement of prominent politicians in Bali, who threatened with the independence of their island, should the Scharia become obligatory in all Indonesia. Less credible were similar declarations from Papua and the eastern islands, where the Christians represent the majority of the population. But time and again it also becomes apparent that it contradicts the Indonesian respectively Javanese awareness of life to run after radical religious slogans.

On 29 July 2005 the "Council of Islamic Scholars" (Majelis Ulama Indonesia) issued a legal instruction (fatwa) that caused a lot of unrest in the country and weighed upon the climate of the interreligious living together. In one of the regulations the Ahmadiya-Movement, which originates in Pakistan, is called "non-Islamic", and its members are denied the right further to be called "Muslims". In the lawyers' opinion they are therefore regarded as "apostates" (murtad). A cabinet member in all seriousness advised the Ahmadiya members to organize themselves as a new religious community outside Islam, in order thus to escape the repressions on the part of the orthodox Muslims.

In a further announcement "pluralism", "secularism" and "liberalism" are named as positions which are incompatible with Islam. Of special weight with regard to the interreligious communication is however the prohibition for Muslims in Indonesia to take part in interreligious prayer meetings with members of other, non-Islamic religions.

Compared with other Muslim countries however the demonstrations against the caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad of the Danish newspaper Jyllands Posten remained in Indonesia relatively peaceful. In Jakarta the Danish embassy was attacked, whereupon the Danish government recalled the diplomatic personnel. There were also demos in front of the American embassy.



In February 2006 leaders from all religions of the country at an interreligious conference in Jakarta together criticized the publication of the caricatures as not covered by the freedom of press, and appealed for more respect for religious convictions of other people. It is almost grotesque that in Manado in North-Sulawesi a Buddhist temple was set on fire, because a Buddhist monk in a discussion about the caricatures asked the question, why it was actually forbidden to portray the Prophet Muhammad.


The Death Sentences Against Catholics on Sulawesi

In the year 2000 there had been violent conflicts between Christians and Muslims in Poso, the district capital of the province Central Sulawesi. Background of the quarrels were shifts in the local balance of power. From a controversy between young people a fight of the religious and ethnical groups against each other developed, in which more than a thousand persons lost their lives and several churches and mosques were destroyed.

Early in 2001 three Catholics were accused as principal defendants and sentenced to death by the district court in Palu. The execution of the death sentences was - after the rejection of an appeal and a petition for mercy with President Susilo Bamgang Yudhoyono - set for the end of March 2006. But shortly before the date of the execution new exonerating evidence was presented, which proved that the accused at the time of the offences could not have been at the scenes of the crimes.

The originally rather embarrassed silence of the Christians, who were ashamed because of the atrocities committed by fellow-believers, and had therefore not stood up for the accused, now gave way to stronger and stronger protests because of the procedure against the three Catholic men, who as simple people and illiterates could only insufficiently defend themselves and who obviously were to serve as scapegoats, in order to protect the actual wire-pullers. Also the international public now took an intensified interest in the lot of the Catholics sentenced to death.

In the middle of March also Benedict XVI personally intervened, when he received Bishop Joseph Suwatan of Manado in Rome, and gave him rosaries and crosses for the convicts, which the bishop could also hand over to the convicts in the prison in Poso. On 4 April 2006 the Supreme Court of the country rejected a retrial on the basis of the new information, and again confirmed the death sentences as valid.

It positively surprised that even representatives of the Indonesian Council of the Ulamas (MUI) after a visit to the convicts in the prison of Poso pleaded for a delay of the executions, so that opportunity was given to evaluate the newly brought forward evidence by statements of other eye-witnesses. Also Masdar Farid Mas'udi, the leader of the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) demanded a renewed examination of the evidence and warned that the execution of the three accused would heavily weigh on the climate among the religious communities. Already at present religiously motivated acts of violence in Central-Sulawesi can only be prevented because the police has established all around the capital Palu day and night manned check-points.

The building of churches and temples of the religious minorities had in Indonesia for years greatly been obstructed by legal regulations and by taking action of Islamic radical groups that particularly in Java increasingly often destroyed churches or pronounced them closed. The regulations existing since 1969 intended that the local population had to agree to each new building of churches, prayer rooms and temples, a regulation that de facto mostly meant that the Muslim majority refused its agreement to new buildings of religious minorities.


New Regulations for Building Churches

In the years after the end of the Suharto rule the cases increased where with violence or threat of violence churches and religious prayer- and meeting-places of Christians were closed or destroyed. In the last years the number of the destroyed churches rose dramatically to nearly one thousand. In other cases interferences of Islamic groups blocking the entrances to churches and intimidating the church-goers, were sufficient to cause the Christians to "voluntarily" give up these institutions.

The government of Bambang Susilo Yudhoyono wanted to end these illegal conditions by tackling new legal measures. After a longer consulting and preparation time a new decree on the building of places of worship and prayer was signed to this purpose on 21 March 2006 by Maftuh Basyuni, the Minister for religious affairs, and by the Minister of the Interior Muhammad Ma'aruf. It met with broad criticism, as well with the religious minorities of Christians and Hindus as with Muslim groups.

For the influential "Council of Islamic Lawyers" (Indonesian Ulama Council) the new decree contains too far-reaching concessions to the religious minorities. In concrete terms they criticize that the number required for the building of a place of worship was not fixed, as demanded by them, at 100 families



but only at 90 individuals of the respective religious community. Catholic and Protestant Christians fear that the building of churches at places where the Christians are only weakly represented could become in fact impossible, because apart from the number of 90 members of their own religious community the agreement of 60 individuals from other religions is still necessary, and on top of that the newly created Forum for Religious Harmony, that is to be drawn up on village up to province level according to a proportional representation of the local religious communities, has to agree.

Benno Susetyo, secretary of the commission for ecumenical and interreligious affairs of the Indonesian Bishops' Conference judges the new decree not quite so negatively. For him the positive thing is that now there is a legal security for the religious minorities, to get in regular proceedings a building concession for a cult building, when certain conditions are fulfilled. It was also to be welcomed that the local authorities had to strive for alternatives, if the quorum of 90 members of a religious community was not reached.

The in Indonesia very respected Jesuit Franz Magnis Suseno, who originates from Germany, sees the new decree more critically. He criticizes that in it the freedom of worship, guaranteed in the constitution, does not sufficiently become effective for all religious communities. A permission for the building of new churches and places of worship by the newly created Forum for Interreligious Relations, as it is planned by the decree, should actually be unnecessary.

Criticism of the new law came also from Muslim side. Hasyim Muzadi, president of the Nahdlatul Ulama, called the new law even more restrictive than the previous, because it tried to consider too many single interests. Also Buddhist, Confucian and Hindu groups expressed their strong reservations. The strongest support for the new law however comes from the Council of Indonesian Ulamas, which had a substantial part in its materialization. Agreement prevails among critics of the new decree from different camps that it cannot actually be the task of the state to want to secure by administrative means the harmony among the religions.


Programs for Interreligious Living Together

In Indonesia, where according to the official statistics of religions from the year 2000 the portion of the Protestant Christians amounts to 5.9 per cent of the population, while the Catholics get 3.1 per cent, the ecumenical relations are generally very good. On the occasion of the last year at Christ's Ascension Day organized National Prayer Conference ecumenical prayer services were held in 77 cities of Indonesia.



The main event took place in the national stadium in Jakarta. The initiative for these and similar ecumenical initiatives came from the Protestant side but was supported by the Bishop's Conference.

In the past there were in Indonesia time and again interreligious dialogue programs initiated by the state. They frequently suffered from the fact that they - because of their quasi-official character - were only hesitantly accepted on the part of the religious communities. Since the end of 2004 an Interreligious Dialogue Centre offers courses for students in the postgraduate study at the National Islamic University in Yogyakarta. At this centre apart from Muslim also Christian and Hindu specialists work. Other initiatives of the centre are of more general kind, and address beyond the circle of university students also those who are in general interested. Meetings between members of the various religions are organized. There are also efforts to develop interreligious schools in accordance with the kind of the Islamic Pesantren boarding schools.

In May 2005 more than one hundred girls and boys took part in a program for interreligious living together on Java. The participants for several days lived together in a family from a different religious community. The seminar program was supported by Islamic, Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, Hindu groupings as well as by the organization of the traditional religions. On the agenda were, apart from living together in everyday life, also the participation in religious rituals of the in each case different religious community. After the phase of living together with members of other religions the participants exchanged their experiences and discussed concrete actions for the improvement of the interreligious living together.


Peace Treaty for the Unrest Province Aceh

Similar Interfaith-Live-in-measures took place in other areas of Indonesia as well. They are part of a set of measures that are organized by different religious communities in the country, in order to promote peace and harmony among the religions in the country. In Java the tradition of the rite of Slametan has great importance for the interreligious peaceful living together. This ritual takes place on the occasion of special events of individual life crises and common cyclic events, in order to secure the individual well-being and the peace in the community, when these seem to be endangered by illness, quarrel and other adverse events.

With this Slametan rite coming from the Javanese popular piety flowers or food are sacrificed to the spirits of the ancestors. Even though purist circles in Islam critically face this custom, the Slametan rite still today plays an important role, to take care of harmony and communication in living together across the borders of religious affiliation.

It may sound somewhat cynical, but it is true that the Tsunami disaster contributed causally to advance the peace process in the trouble province Aceh, and led to a durable peace treaty. The Movement Free Aceh (GAM), that since the declaration of independence by Prince Hasan di Tiro on 4 December 1976 fought for almost exactly 30 years for the independence of Aceh, with the Indonesian government on 15 August 2005 in Helsinki entered into an agreement which ended the military conflict and guaranteed the province Aceh not the desired independence, but special rights and a partial autonomy within the Indonesian confederation of states.

The liberation movement GAM in the meantime has delivered its weapons and reorganized itself as a political party. Far-reaching amnesty was granted to the imprisoned fighters of the GAM. It is true though that this agreement must still be ratified by the Indonesian parliament, before it can come into effect. The Indonesian Democratic Party of the former President Magawati Sukarnoputri articulated already its resistance against the agreement.

By a decree under her government already in 2003 Scharia courts were set up. They replaced or integrated the religious legal mechanisms up to then already existing. The first task of the Scharia courts is supposed to ensure the traditional religious practices of the Muslims in Aceh. A "Scharia Police" (Wilayatul Hisbah) of its own since then watches over the observance of the Islamic laws with regard to the clothes of women, and takes action against persons who drink alcohol, are found gambling or live together in a non-conjugal partnership.

Furthermore these courts are to decide in property and hereditary disputes, but on the other hand are not to demand the strict observance of the Scharia laws, which provide flogging, stoning and other corporal punishments for theft or adultery (Hudud Laws). Contrary to these announcements in June 2005 in Banda Aceh fifteen men were publicly in front of thousands of spectators for gambling chastised by the Scharia police with caning.

Already for some years growing unrest has been in the former province Irian Jaya, renamed Province Papua, and since 2003 split by the then President Megawati Sukarnoputri into the Province Papua and the newly created Province West-Irian Jaya. Against this one-sided resolution of the Indonesian government strong resistance arises. According to the special autonomy law the competent provincial parliament had to give its agreement,



so that the Constitutional Court in November 2004 came to the somewhat strange resolution that the establishment of the new province admittedly was not unconstitutional, but nevertheless had no stable legal basis. President Yudhoyono made a new attempt to legitimate the territorial reorganization, which however was rejected by the People's Council of the Papuas on 16 February 2006 as still not agreeing with the special autonomy law.

On 16 March 2006 it came to violence by students of the National Cenderawasih University in Abepura. There three members of the task force of the police and an officer of the Air Force were killed by the protesting students. The protest demonstration was an expression of wide-spread frustration and bitterness among the local population, which is sick and tired of the play of the political elite about control and portion of the proceeds from the mineral resources of the country. The way international conglomerates, for example in the case of the US-American company Freeport Indonesia, exploit gold-, silver and copper deposits, meets increasingly violent resistance on the part of the local population, and was the trigger for the protests of the students, who demanded the closing of the gold mines of Freeport Indonesia. The population in Papua would like to get the benefit of the same privileges, as they were negotiated in the Helsinki Peace Treaty for the population in Aceh. Admittedly there is a special law since 2001 relating to the special autonomy in Papua, but for the population the regulations of that law do not go far enough.

    {*} George Evers (born in 1936), attained a doctorate with Karl Rahner on theology of religion. From 1979-2001 he was an Asia adviser in the Institute of Missiology (Aachen). In this capacity he undertook numerous journeys to Asian countries and took part in important theological conferences in the context of the Union of Asian Bishops' Conferences (FABC).
    Numerous publications on interreligious dialogue and mission theology, for example
    "The Churches in Asia", ISPCK 2005, 599 pages - about the history of the Asian Churches during the last fifty years. This book can be get from the author for 20 Euros! Write to:
    Dr. Georg Evers
    Roetgenerstraße 42 a
    B-4730 Raeren


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