Indonesia is supposed to be one of the more moderate of all the Muslim countries. Christians comprise more than 10 per cent of the population, and the country’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion.
Two months ago a Christian became governor of the capital city Jakarta and Christians are prominent elsewhere, particularly in business. The country’s largest mosque in Jakarta was designed by a Christian architect. It stands next to the Catholic cathedral.
Yet living in Australia, not far from Indonesia, I see clearly the truth in the statement of the “Operation World” prayer guide: “Islam’s strength and influence in numbers and power allow it to exert itself on the religious scene, giving itself preferential treatment and limiting Christian activities and public presence.”
When the Christian enclave of East Timor was struggling for independence in the 1980s and 1990s, the Indonesian military responded with a virulent campaign of genocide that wiped out a third of the population. (I was so appalled that the murder, rape and torture of that time became the theme of my first novel, “Prophets and Loss.”)
Since then radical Islam has been making further inroads. The province of Aceh has enacted sharia law – extended last year to include non-Muslims – and has closed down churches.
Church burnings have occurred in many places, and Christians have been attacked. Some local governments place onerous restrictions on freedom of worship.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide issued a report last year. The title and sub-title told the story: “Indonesia: Pluralism in Peril – The rise of religious intolerance across the archipelago.”
Presidential elections were held in July with both candidates endorsing religious freedom and promising to crack down on religion-inspired violence. Yet since then, conditions seem to have worsened.
Just last week the Jakarta Post newspaper published an article about the new president, Joko Widodo (known popularly as Jokowi) with the headline, “Jokowi ‘not doing enough’ to promote religious pluralism.”
It quoted a spokesman for an Indonesian organization devoted to interfaith dialogue as stating that, “Jokowi has become just another government official who promises one thing but doesn’t deliver, even though he was very outspoken during his campaign.”
The spokesman called on the government to do more to combat growing fundamentalism, including new regulations criminalizing violent acts against minority groups and monitoring their implementation.
“Jokowi and his administration must be firm against these violators and remind people that we are a pluralist nation, or else the trend will continue,” he told the newspaper.
But is it already too late?
The article also quoted the secretary-general of the Indonesian Communion of Churches, who warned ominously that “the government was at times caught between doing what the majority wanted and listening to the demands of the minority.”
This is exactly what Christians in Muslim countries fear – the growing belligerence of a violent and intolerant minority who intimidate the majority into passive silence.
If “moderate” Indonesia is unable to stand up to this minority, the outlook for Christians in much of the Muslim world is grim.