Indonesia Destroying Churches as Islamist Influence Grows

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Churches are being shut down in Indonesia at a rate of 40 per year, according to an Indonesian think-tank promoting religious tolerance. Despite its reputation for moderation, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recently listed Indonesia as a “Tier 2” country for its religious persecution.

The information comes from Bonar Tigor Naipospos, the deputy director of the Setara Institute. He says that the actual statistic may be higher because not all churches make official reports when they are closed by the authorities.

“There is a growing tendency towards intolerance among the public. There are many factors behind this such as declining warfare, the spread of radical thoughts and the prevalence of hard-line groups,” he explains.

According to the CIA World Factbook, 7% of the Indonesian population is Christian and 2.9% is Roman Catholic. The total population is about 254 million, so about 25 million adherents of Christianity are affected by the increasing Islamist persecution. Some have claimed that the actual percentage of Christians in Indonesia is closer to 15 to 20 percent.

The Islamists are exploiting a 2006 decree passed by the Religious Affairs Ministry and Home Affairs Ministry that places tight regulations on houses of worship. The burdensome permit process is known to take five to 10 years for a church. When a church is going through the process, the Islamists pressure local government officials to deny the applications.

The decree requires that houses of worship not be a source of sectarian tension and have local community approval.  Signatures from 60 local households of different faiths are required, as are endorsements from several local officials. They are also required to get permission from the community’s ironically named Interfaith Communication Forum. Islamists usually serve on these bodies, giving them veto power over any churches.

The Islamists are also reporting churches without permits to the authorities and pressuring them to take action.

Churches that have existed decades before the 2006 decree have even been closed. Last month, the authorities closed seven Protestant churches in West Java for not having the necessary permits. Several of them were constructed before the law was made.

In some cases, the local authorities defy the orders of their superiors in order to persecute Christians. The country’s Supreme Court has twice ruled in favor of a church in Bogor accused of violating local regulations but city officials keep it closed to the public.

Local Islamist hordes are known to use force to stop church construction as well. On February 17, the first stone was set down for a church in South Sumatra Province. Hundreds of Islamists with weapons took over the two acres where construction was to start.

Aceh Province is the only Indonesian province that officially has sharia governance. It has a morality police that punishes people for “deviancy” and “blasphemy.” Islamist clerics issue extremist fatwas, such as one that declared Sufi Islam to be heretical.

In February, Aceh Province enacted a new law requiring even non-Muslims to obey sharia. Non-Muslims that are prosecuted are not required to have their trial in a Sharia court, but supposedly “secular” courts still make their rulings according to sharia-based legislation.

This means that non-Muslims can be prosecuted for adultery, alcohol consumption or wearing un-Islamic dress. The punishments are likewise based in sharia, leading to non-Muslims being potentially whipped, stoned or having their limbs severed.

The source for this persecution is Islamist doctrine.

The majority of Indonesia’s Muslims follow the Shafi’i school of Sunni Islam, inside of which there are Islamists ad non-Islamists. The Shafi’i Islamist version of Sharia is codified in a manual named the Reliance of the Traveler. It rules that Islamic states must prohibit the construction or repair of future churches and there must be no display of crosses outside churches, ringing of church bells, recitation of the Gospel aloud or public Christian celebrations.

Christian houses of worship must also be smaller than nearby mosques, and it is illegal to proselytize to Muslims. It is also illegal for non-Muslims, including Christians, to say “something impermissible about Allah” or openly declare their Christian beliefs.

Non-Christians are also increasingly subjected to religious persecution.

The State Department says that security personnel in East Java stood by and watched as dozens of Shiites were forced to convert to Sunni Islam. It also mentioned that the blasphemy laws mean that anyone convicted of proselytizing can be thrown in prison for up to five years.

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom says that the country is being “marred by sectarian violence, terrorist attacks, the growth of extremist groups, and rising intolerance towards religious minorities and ‘heterodox’ groups.”

This turn of events is especially disappointing because there are powerful non-Islamist forces in Indonesia. As I wrote here, former President Abdurrahman Wahid promoted a reformed interpretation of Islam and mounted a powerful ideological challenge to the Islamists.

His book, The Illusion of an Islamic State, fostered much-needed debate within Indonesia about the relationship between Sharia and governance. One of its contributors led Nahdlatul Ulama, a group with 40 million members, and another led Muhammadiyah, another group with 30 million members. Unfortunately, Wahid and his allies lost the momentum due to the Islamists’ superior organization and resources.

Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world. Its decline into extremism and religious intolerance does not bode well for the future of the Muslim world.


Ryan Mauro is the ClarionProject.org’s National Security Analyst, a fellow with the Clarion Project and is frequently interviewed on top-tier TV stations as an expert on counterterrorism and Islamic extremism.

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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org

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