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Minority Religions Pray For End to Discrimination
By Kanis Dursin
BEKASI, Indonesia, Nov 8, 2010 (IPS) - Clutching bibles and song leaflets, members of a Protestant church flocked into a one-storey building here, situated next to a new shopping mall on one of the busiest streets in this municipality in Indonesia’s West Java province.
The mood among the congregation of the Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP) church was subdued, devoid of talk and laughter typical of the ethnic Batak people when they greet each other. Crammed in absolute silence in the small hall, hundreds of Christians faced a small brown cross that hung on the wall.
“You may cover the (Sunday) service, but please no interviews with congregation members as the situation is still dangerous,” a leader of the church told IPS, pleading not to be identified.
Outside, dozens of armed plainclothes and uniformed police officers kept watch on people coming close to the building. “At least 30 police personnel are deployed here every Sunday since HKBP started holding their service in the building,” said a police officer on duty.
HKBP moved to its current government-designated on Sept. 26 after a group of local Muslims beat up HKBP pastor Rev Luspida Simanjutak and stabbed her assistant, Hasian Lumbantoruan Sihombing, in the stomach while the two were on their way to Sunday service on Sep. 12.
The HKBP incident, which was widely reported in local media, is the latest in a series of religion-related animosity and violence in Indonesia, raising some concerns over the space for religious freedom in the world’s largest Muslim country.
But Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has repeatedly called for greater tolerance among followers of different religious groups in this Muslim-majority South- east Asian country.
Said Aqil Siraj, chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation with some 40 million members, said it is unlikely the attacks on minority groups were religiously motivated.
Instead, he said, they are more reflective of social and economic tensions in society. The attackers were “economically poor and marginalised in the ever-widening economic gap between the poor and the rich,” he explained.
“What happened (to HKBP) in Bekasi was pure unfairness,” Said explained. “The developer moved a mosque out of the housing complex and Muslims there accepted it as the new mosque was big and nice. But when they learned that a house inside the (old) complex had been converted into a church, they became so angry.”
Since then, Simanjutak said, local authorities have sealed off the residential house for violating a building regulation that prohibits its use for any other purpose other than its original function. HKBP can now only hold its Sunday service in the new, heavily guarded location, although other activities, including Sunday school, are still held at the sealed house.
“The number of churchgoers and Sunday school students has dropped significantly,” said Simanjutak, who claimed the church had around 1,500 followers, including 300 Sunday school students, in Bekasi Timur alone.
“Since its birth, Indonesia has always been a pluralistic country and those who wish to turn the country into an Islamic state are just being nostalgic (of past Islamic civilisation),“ Said said.
“Pancasila is a done deal, and Nahdlatul Ulama would continue to promote pluralistic values,” he said, referring to the Indonesian state ideology that promotes pluralism and secularism.
According to Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, there were at least 28 cases of violence against Christians – who account for some 10 percent of Indonesia’s 240 million population – from January to July 2010 alone, compared to 18 throughout 2009, and 17 in 2008.
But other minority religions, too, have had their share of worries.
A group of Muslims in Parung, West Java, burned down a mosque owned by the Islamic sect Ahmadiyah in October 2010, along with five houses and several vehicles belonging to sect members. At least another 17 houses were destroyed and looted, forcing members of the minority sect to evacuate.
Local authorities have also ordered Buddhist leaders in Tanjung Balai of Indonesia’s northern Sumatra province to remove a six-metre high statue from Tri Ratna – the town’s only Buddhist temple, with some 2,000 followers – after receiving complaints that the statue did not reflect Islamic values and may hurt social harmony.
“Weak law enforcement by police officers against those involved in destroying places of worships has only encouraged more religious violence in the country,” lamented Hendardi, chairman of Setara Institute.
Experts say suspects are often let off the hook or get only light sentences. While police have named 10 suspects in the HKBP Bekasi case, no trial date has yet been set. Among these suspects are a leader of the radical Islamic Defenders Front, which has also been blamed for attacks on numerous entertainment centres in the capital Jakarta and surrounding towns.
According to Hendardi, radicals also exploit a joint decree issued in 2006 by the home affairs and religious affairs ministries, which stipulates that any religious group proposing a new place of worship must first secure written consent in the form of signatures from residents, before applying for a construction permit from the government.
Human rights activists want this regulation revoked, saying that it is discriminatory to minority religious communities. (END)