Accessibility links

Tensions Test Indonesia's Moderate Muslim Image

Human rights group says unsubstantiated rumors about Christians using deceptive practices to convert Muslims fuel anger in Bekasi

Tensions between Muslims and Christians and other religious sects have resulted in incidents of sectarian conflict, which some rights activists say threaten Indonesia's moderate Muslim image.

A Sunday morning service of the Batak Christian Protestant Church in an open field in the Jakarta suburb of Bekasi turns into a near riot. Hundreds of enraged Muslim men surround the small group, made up mostly of women. Riot police form a line around the Christians. Bekasi police commander Imam Sugianto says they are there to prevent the protest from becoming violent. He says both sides already informed the police of their activities so their job today is to protect both sides.

The Batak Christians purchased the land and want to build a church on this site. The Muslim majority in the neighborhood opposes the plan and the local government refused to approve the necessary building permit.

Murhali Barda, leader of the hardline Islamic Defenders Front group in Bekasi, says the church's insistence on worshipping on this land is a provocation. He says all Muslims feel insulted because of the Christians' occupation of this area, and also by other insults from the Christians.

Barda says those include the case of a 16-year-old Christian boy on trial in Bekasi for allegedly defacing a copy of the Koran. And most insulting, Bardi says, is a recent report on the Internet that a Christian charity group, the Mahanaim Foundation, attempted to conduct mass baptisms in the area. He says it is everybody's right to do good deeds, but when this group does them to convert Muslims away of their religion, then that is a criminal activity.

More than 90 percent of Indonesia's population of 220 million is Muslim, although the country has a secular government and its constitution protects minority rights. But over the past decade, there have been a number of clashes between religious groups.

Bonar Tigor Naipospos is with Setara, a human rights organization that tracks incidents of religious intolerance and discrimination in Indonesia. He says unsubstantiated rumors about Christians using deceptive practices to convert Muslims fuel the anger in Bekasi.

"They think now the Christian is very active, aggressive and push the people to convert their beliefs," said Naipospos. "And they said the Christians use money, use food, or use other enjoyment to change, to convert the people and became the Christians.

Thousands were killed a decade ago in sectarian violence between Christians and Muslims in the Moluccas islands in Indonesia. Today, Naipospos says, incidents of religious violence in the country have greatly declined, though religious tension is on the rise.

Among recent incidents, there have been attacks on a Christian center in the city of Bogor, and the government essentially has banned the Ahmadiyah - a sect that many Muslims consider to be deviant.

The Muslim protests at Batak Church services have been going on for four weeks and have become more intense and threatening. At one point Sunday, protesters nearly broke through the police line, knocking some people to the ground.

Police allow in the Islamic Defenders Front leader Barda to urge the Christians to end their service before things turn violent. But church leaders, including Luspida Simanjunta, refuse, saying it is a matter of freedom of religion. She says this conflict happened because the Muslims refuse to recognize the church's existence here. The church's presence is a disturbance to them.

The church has filed a court appeal against the government's decision to reject its building permit. Protesters, Simanjunta says, already have forced the church to relocate from the center of Bekasi to its present site. The government has asked the church to move its services to the city hall building, but church leaders refuse to move again.

The situation in Bekasi remains tense as leaders try to find a way to both protect minority rights and satisfy the concerns of the majority.