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Christians and Shiites Targeted as Religious Intolerance Rises in Indonesia

The 600-member congregation of the Batak Protestant Church near Jakarta, Indonesia, was getting too big to fit in Pastor Adven Leonard Nababan’s house every Sunday. Naturally, they decided to build a church.

Indonesian law required the congregation to get consent from 60 non-Christian neighbors before beginning construction. Having done this, Pastor Nababan, mindful of Indonesia’s web of contradictory rules for Christians and other minorities, cautiously gave the go-ahead to break ground.

As the walls of the new church went up, hundreds of Muslims began to protest. Police and government officials got involved. They declared that the 60 signatures were fake and dispatched a backhoe to demolish the church. According to Human Rights Watch, the government said the congregation did not secure the necessary building permit and that the demolition order came at the urging of the Islamic People’s Forum, a militant Islamist organization. Pastor Nababan and his congregation, clearly distraught, locked arms around the church, to no avail. The backhoe did its dirty work. Not far away about 300 Muslims clapped their hands and shouted “Alahu Akbar,” a witness told the Baptist Press.

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Sadly, this is not the first instance of Indonesian Christians being targeted for their religion, nor is it the first instance of government injustice against religious minorities. Nor are Christians the only ones being attacked.

Human Rights Watch has documented the closure of more than 30 churches in Java and Sumatra, and a mosque in Kupang, between 2010 and 2012. Muslim militants have invoked the 2006 decree to seek to justify vandalizing, and at times burning, what they call “illegal churches.”

Since Yudhoyono took office in December 2004, there has been an increase in violence targeting Ahmadiyah, Christians, Shia, and other religious minorities. More than 430 churches have been attacked, closed down, or burned down since 2004, according to the Communion of Churches in Indonesia.

Two contrasting stories illuminate the dire situation for religious minorities in Indonesia today. On February 15, 2011, more than 200 Sunni militants rampaged through a Shia school in Bangil, East Java, injuring seven Shia teenage students. A court sentenced six Sunni men to a little over three months in prison for their part in the crime. A year later, a different court sentenced Tajul Muluk, a Shia cleric, to two years in prison for blasphemy, after Sunni militants burned down his house and forced his family and followers to flee.

Sunni militias are active in different pockets across Indonesia, in cities and rural areas. At the national level, conservative Islam is taking a strong hold in politics. Just yesterday the government joined hands with the country’s Islamic leaders to announce their intention to turn Indonesia into a hub for “Sharia tourism”—that is, “leisure accompanied by religious values.” Across the country, female circumcision remains a common practice.

This intolerance, thankfully, isn’t supported by all of Indonesia’s Muslims. When Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio became Pope Francis earlier this month, the heads of Indonesia’s two largest Islamic organizations congratulated him and expressed hope that together they could “discuss how to maintain good relationships between the Vatican and Indonesian Muslims, to ensure the safety of Catholics in Indonesia and to intensify interfaith dialogue.” VM hopes this sentiment is borne out in the future and applied to believers of all faiths.

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