0 For Indonesian Christians, Gatherings Bring Tension

Kemal Jufri for The International Herald Tribun Muslims in Bekasi, Indonesia, trying to drown out the hymns of the Batak Christian congregation with an Arabic chant @ The New York Times Company
BEKASI, INDONESIA — Sitting in the shade of a tree in an empty lot, the congregants raised their hymn books and, in response, the police, lined up in a ragged cordon, raised their riot shields. Sunday service was starting for the local Batak Christian Protestant Church and, for the third time in three weeks, the local authorities prepared for a clash.

Across the barricade, enraged young Muslim men in white skullcaps surged forward as the first song in praise of Jesus Christ chimed out. Using their own speakers, they tried to drown out the hymn with their own Arabic chant, “la ilaha ilallah” — there is no god but Allah.

Scenes such as this have become an increasingly frequent sign of religious tension across the Indonesian capital and its urban sprawl, home to more than 20 million people.



In recent months, there has been a surge in forcible church closures, attacks on prayer meetings and violent protests by Islamist vigilante groups against perceived plots to “Christianize” Muslim neighborhoods.
The standoff on Sunday in Bekasi, an ethnically mixed city of factories, slums and private housing estates on the edge of Jakarta, illustrates what many fear is a crisis that has been willfully ignored by the government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and could boil up into violent religious conflict.

For Luspida Simanjuntak, the Christian congregation’s leader, the problem is simple: Her flock of 1,500 has no church, and no one here will let her build one. In Indonesia, houses of worship can be built only with permission from the surrounding community. This is a measure that critics say contributes to a tyranny of the majority and forces minorities to hold services in private homes, hotels, shopping malls and streets.
“We’ve been worshipping for 15 years, more or less, moving from house to house because every time we try to build a church, we’re faced with mobs who won’t let us build,” Mrs. Simanjuntak said.

In June, Bekasi city officials, backed by a crowd of hundreds of Muslims, sealed off the home where Mrs. Simanjuntak’s congregation had been holding services. With nowhere to worship, a small hard core from the group moved to an overgrown block of church-owned land and what has become a weekly ritual of confrontation got under way.

The congregation said it believed that it had permission to worship here, but, arriving with a heavy police escort on Sunday, the city police chief, Col. Imam Sugianto, and the local government secretary said that they must clear off.

“If the local people don’t give their permission, they can’t worship here,” Colonel Sugianto said, exasperated. “If we let this go ahead, they’ll be attacked. There will be a physical clash.”

On the Muslim side of the police cordon, a speaker warned that the Christians were trying to provoke Muslims into violence and were seeking to turn local children into kafir, or infidels.

To liberal Indonesians, however, the true provocateurs in the fast-growing city are a combination of opportunistic local Muslim leaders and hard-line groups like the Islamic Defenders Front, or F.P.I., a group with a long history of violence and intimidation against religious minorities and secularists. What’s more, many of these Muslim leaders have thrown their support behind the introduction of elements of Shariah, or Islamic law.

According to the Setara Institute, a pluralist organization, there have been 28 cases of rights violations against Christian congregations in the first half of this year in Indonesia, most of them in the Jakarta metropolitan area, compared with 18 for all of last year.

Ahmad Suaedy, of the Wahid Institute, a liberal Muslim organization, said the situation has been worsened by official reluctance to interfere with groups like the F.P.I., which is widely believed, albeit with scant evidence, to have backing from local elites and elements of the security forces. The F.P.I. is almost never punished for anarchic protests, which have included breaking into Christian gatherings and property damage and assault.
For its part, the Indonesian government has denied any link between its security forces and extremist groups, as well as assertions that it treats such groups leniently.

By refusing to risk alienating Indonesia’s small radical fringe, President Yudhoyono, a cautious and consensus-driven leader, shares much of the blame for a situation that has the remote but real chance of exploding into sectarian violence, Mr. Suaedy said.

“The government isn’t responding, so they can do whatever they want,” Mr. Suaedy said. “The situation is still dangerous and conflict could happen just like that, by accident.”

Among many Muslims, there is a similar fear of conflict. In their view, however, the villains are Christians who are aggressively expanding congregations and trying to convert Muslims.
“What’s upsetting us are these baptisms by Christians,” said Murhali Barda, the Bekasi head of the F.P.I. “It’s real. It’s not an issue we’ve engineered.”

Mr. Barda insisted that Christians do not face discrimination by the authorities. On the contrary, he said, their unauthorized religious activities are routinely overlooked.

Protests by Muslim hard-liners this year succeeded in getting a statue at an upscale housing complex that depicted three women in traditional Indonesian dress torn down on the grounds that it could be interpreted as representing the Holy Trinity.

In May, Islamists attacked a local Catholic school after an image was posted on its Web site that local media and the police said showed a 16-year-old boy treading on a copy of the Koran and raising his middle finger. The boy, Abraham Felix, is currently on trial for “defaming religion,” which can bring a jail sentence of up to four years.

A congress of the F.P.I. and other hard-line groups in June raised alarms among Christian and secular groups by resolving to create security posts at each of Bekasi’s mosques to guard against “apostasy” as well as a militia to preserve the “character and faith” of Muslims.

“Islam loves peace. We’re not going to start” any confrontations, said Bernard Abdul Jabbar, the head of the Anti-Apostasy Front, another local group. “It’s the belief of Muslims that we must control ourselves, but if we’re stepped on we will bite,” he said, adding that he believed Christians had already set up militias, something Christian groups deny.

The alleged mass baptism in June of dozens of Muslims by the Mahanaim Foundation, a Christian charity, has become the latest issue to fire up activists. Posters depicting a Mahanaim member hanging by the neck from a flaming noose have sprung up across Bekasi.

A spokesman for Mahanaim denied conducting a mass baptism, but even some Christian leaders said that they thought, at least in this case, that Muslim accusations of Christian proselytizing may have a basis in reality.
Back at the lot where the Christians had gathered on Sunday, the standoff continued. Over howls from Muslim protesters, and in spite of government calls to stop, Mrs. Simanjuntak’s congregants prayed on until their hymn sheet was exhausted.

As the congregants filed home, a knot of Muslim men pushed forward with raised fists at the passing Christians, but were bottled up by a linked-arm chain of other Muslims.
With tempers clearly raw, members of both sides said they felt betrayed by a government that they said had clearly sided with their rivals.

Both sides, too, said that they would return on Sunday.

(Source : The New York Times)

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