Published: 00:01 GMT Daylight Time - Thursday 27 May 2010
Country Profile - Indonesia - Spread of sharia law
Project(s): 22-753, 22-766, 22-828
Spread of sharia law
Spread of sharia law
The increased political power of Indonesia’s Muslim majority has led to the extension of sharia law to and within various parts of the country. Facing considerable pressure from grassroots Muslims to cater specifically for their interests, the government has lacked the will or strength to resist.
Following a prolonged Islamist insurgency the territory of Aceh (known as the “gateway to Mecca” because it is so Islamic) achieved a measure of autonomy from the national government in 2001. Two years later its government established sharia courts and began to introduce elements of sharia law, which were enforced by special religious police.
Aceh is the only one of Indonesia’s 32 provinces where sharia is officially permitted, and non-Muslims have been explicitly exempted from its laws. Many other provinces, however, use it as the inspiration for their ordinances, and since 2003 at least half have enacted their own variations of sharia. Some of these apply to Christians as well as Muslims. Schoolchildren, engaged couples and women are particularly affected. The national government has refused to intervene, claiming that the laws deal only with “public order”. It even shows signs of yielding to pressure for sharia-compliance in its own legislation: a bill is being considered that would require all food, drink, drugs and cosmetics to be tested for conformity to Islamic dietary rules.
The growth of sharia has also led to a hardening of attitudes among Muslims, with more of them calling for the introduction of such cruel punishments as stoning and maiming. The increased Islamisation of some areas is eroding Muslim tolerance of Christians, making them fertile ground for extremism and violence.
Another factor that has served to promote sharia is the government-sponsored policy known as “transmigration”, the organised movement of people (mainly Muslims) from Java into other regions and communities. Many Muslims are settling in the Christian-majority Malukus, and Christians expect that there will soon be a Muslim majority there. Papua is another Christian area where large numbers of Muslims have recently settled. By cleverly (and illegally) dividing the province the government has created a separate Muslim-majority area in the west. Once Islam holds the numerical ascendancy in an area, a much stronger case can be made for the imposition of sharia.
Activities of militant Islamists
The continuing presence and activity of numerous Islamist groups perhaps poses the greatest threat to the existence and well-being of Indonesia’s churches. One stated goal of these groups is to eliminate Christianity from the country altogether, and to this end they have sought to undermine efforts at reconciliation between Muslims and Christians. In some areas they have gone much further, mounting an aggressive and often violent campaign against Christians. Church growth through the conversion of Muslims to Christianity is likely to provoke an especially strong reaction.
Indonesian Islam remains generally traditional, and the Islamists are estimated to comprise less than 10% of the population. But because the authorities and other Muslims are afraid of them, they have extensive freedom of action and are able to punch well above their weight. Where they cannot take direct action, damaging, burning or bombing Christian churches and homes, they may raise a mob to act on their behalf; or they can influence local government to prevent the repair of buildings or to stop services and other Christian activities.
The results of these strategies can often be disastrous for Christians. Hundreds of churches have been destroyed by angry crowds, and permission for them to be rebuilt has often been withheld. Violence and intimidation have been used to close churches.
For example, in January 2010 two churches and a pastor’s house were set on fire by a mob of up to a thousand Muslims in the Padang Lawas regency of North Sumatra. Hundreds of Christians fled from their homes to avoid possible attacks. The Muslim community was reported to be “tired of seeing too many faithful and too many prayers”. The local police asserted that the buildings were not registered as churches, but the church leaders denied this claim.
In another incident 17 churches were forcibly closed down in one district of Aceh. Local Muslims, discontented with the repairing of churches in their area and the construction of new ones, threatened the Christians with death if they did not destroy the buildings. The Christians had also to promise not to meet for worship or teaching in their homes or carry out any missionary activity. Many of the Christians were so much frightened by the incident that they would no longer attend church at all; others had to hold their meetings in the plantations.
If Christians do try to continue their ministry in their own homes, they can be targeted there too. Three years ago three Christian women were sent to prison for allowing Muslim children to attend a Sunday School in one of their houses. Releasing them was scarcely an option for the judge with screaming mobs of Muslims outside the courthouse threatening violence.
The activity of Islamists is often concentrated in specific areas where the local government or Muslim community are especially sympathetic to them. A spate of recent incidents in West Java provides an example of this tactic. In December 2009, at Islamic New Year, thousands of demonstrators stormed a church in Bekasi regency, setting objects on fire. On 31 December the authorities in East Bekasi, under the influence of hard-line Muslim groups, ordered a large church to stop its services and other activities. On 3 January 2010 hundreds of residents of the North Tambun sub-district prevented members of another church from taking part in services. In Bogor Regency Muslims took to the streets to protest against the building of a permanent church. Repeated intimidation and constant insecurity undermines not only the ministry but also the morale of the local Christians.
Individual Christians may also be attacked, maimed or killed. In Palembang in South Sumatra a Muslim study circle opposed to the conversion of Muslims to Christianity was radicalised and decided to pursue its cause by means of violence against those who shared the Gospel with Muslims. In April 2009 ten of them were imprisoned for killing a Christian teacher and planning other attacks. In 2005 a group of Christian schoolgirls were attacked by Islamist militants armed with machetes; three were beheaded and a fourth seriously injured.
Other behaviour that offends Muslim sensibilities may also spark violence. In December 2008 there was a riot in Masohi in the Malukus after a schoolteacher allegedly made a comment insulting Islam. Two churches and dozens of homes were burned by a crowd of more than 300 people.
Nor are Christian institutions immune from such action. In July 2008 the Arastamar Evangelical School of Theology was attacked by residents in West Jakarta, and more than 20 students were injured. The local authorities relocated the school to three separate sites, which provided only poor-quality accommodation and made teaching difficult. A year later they were moved on again, and they have only recently found a new campus.
The Indonesian security forces have not only failed many times to restrain the activities of Islamist groups. During the extreme anti-Christian violence from the late 1990s they often joined in on the side of the Muslim militants. In West Papua, with its large Christian population, the Indonesian military even burned a number of Christian villages and killed their inhabitants.
Islamist persecution also takes nonviolent forms. A Christian group in Banda Aceh built more than 200 houses for Muslim victims of the Pacific Ocean tsunami of 2004. With support from Barnabas Fund it also provided seven houses for Christian victims, but local Muslims then refused to allow Christians to move back and occupy the houses.
A region on the brink?
The size of Indonesia, and its resulting power – economic, political and military – makes it crucially important in South-East Asia. If its Islamists were to achieve their goals of making it an Islamic state under the authority of sharia and eliminating Christianity from its territories, then the presence and mission of Christians in other parts of the region would also be endangered. Please pray for the churches of Indonesia as they seek to respond with wisdom, courage and faithfulness to the serious challenges that they face.