SEMARANG, INDONESIA — Much has been written claiming that Islam is a religion of peace. Even if so in theory, Muslim benevolence seems to be sadly lacking in practice in much of the world. For instance, in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Islamic state with 240 million people, the minority Christian community finds itself under constant attack.
Indonesia is one of the world’s artificial nations, a polyglot mass of islands whose people speak 300 different languages, collected by the Dutch into a colony which later devolved into the country of Indonesia. Long called the Java empire, the disparate ethnic and religious groups were ruled from Jakarta (on Java island) by dictators Sukarno and Suharto. Arbitrary, authoritarian, and corrupt — these regimes nevertheless did suppress religious conflict. Although about 85 percent of Indonesia’s people are Muslim, the country was known for its unthreatening brand of Islam.
The 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis finally did what domestic human rights activists could not do: defenestrate Suharto and his cronies. But a weak democracy arose in his dictatorship’s wake; along with it has come Islamic fundamentalism, mob violence, sectarian conflict, and jihadist terrorism.
The U.S. is a constant target of extremists: demonstrators converged on the American embassy after the Danish publication of the cartoons of Mohammed, Israel’s military action in Gaza, and, most recently, Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. But it is Indonesian Christians who are most at risk.
Violence and persecution are common. Three Christian school girls were beheaded last October in the province of Central Sulawesi. In the same territory, a bomb blast shortly after Christmas killed several Christians. Moreover, three Christians were sentenced to death after being convicted in a case growing out of the province’s communal violence in 2000-2001. The trial was of dubious impartiality and was marred by constant Islamic intimidation; no Muslims were ever charged for initiating the attacks.
The terrorist network Jemaah Islamiya, responsible for bombings in Bali and Jakarta, is under pressure but hardly beaten. Mobs commonly attack and burn down Christian facilities; even in Jakarta churches and a Bible school have been put to the torch. But local officials do nothing. Instead, they often refuse permission for rebuilding. Last fall Christian Freedom International (CFI) reported that the group whose name translates into the Anti-Apostasy Alliance Movement was mounting a campaign to intimidate Java Christians and had succeeded in closing at least 35 churches.
Three Sunday School teachers were convicted last September for the “Christianization” of Muslim children — who attended with their parents’ permission — in a trial highlighted by mobs demanding the women’s death. Although the government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono routinely criticizes violence, it recently implemented a law restricting the creation of new churches, effectively barring small congregations from worshipping in Muslim neighborhoods. “It’s very hard to get” the necessary permissions, one Christian leader told me.
Foreign missionaries can run into resistance in winning renewal of their visas. As Gerson (like many Indonesians, he uses only one name), a pastor on the island of Kalimantan, put it with wonderful understatement: being a Christian “is difficult” in Indonesia’s culture.
The best that can be said is that things could be worse. The political system seems to have stabilized and intra-communal violence in the Sulewasi and Maluku provinces has sharply diminished. The large Islamic group Nadhlatul Ulama has criticized violence against Christians. Moreover, bombings that have killed Muslims and especially tourists, thereby hurting the economy, have forced Jakarta to take the problem of jihadist terrorism more seriously.
YET VIOLENT, POLITICAL ISLAM rules much of Indonesia’s daily life, a sad fact evident every time that I have visited the country over the past several years. With the CFI I’ve talked with victims of violence, observed tsunami relief efforts, and met asylum hopefuls. Most recently I hop-scotched across the country with members of Discovery Church from San Marcos, California.
Discovery, which has joined three other churches to create an omnibus organization known as The Center in North County , has developed a strong bond with an Indonesian congregation located in the city of Semarang, on Java. Kristus Alfa Omega, with a congregation of 2000 in the city of 2.5 million, is a Christian island in the midst of a Muslim sea (or, more provocatively though accurately, a Christian oasis in the midst of a Muslim desert).
KAO’s pastor of 37 years, Timotius Subekti, observes that it is “hard for Christians in Indonesia. But we believe that with pressure and hardship, there will be a breakthrough.”
The pressure and hardship are ever present. The church meets in a three-story tile building crammed into a small, walled compound. Security is a constant concern. In 2001 a bomb blast near his family’s parked car cost his wife, Susana Hilda Riyanti, a leg. The couple’s home was burned down the following year. Apparently peace was not on the minds of their attackers, but the two continue to cheerfully greet parishioners and foreign visitors alike.
Nor do KAO’s other members seem discouraged. The church pursues two complementary objectives. The first is evangelism, which sparks so much hatred and resistance from Islamic fundamentalists. There are 127 unreached people groups in Indonesia, notes Rev. Subekti. “Indonesia is very much struggling,” he says, but he hopes his country will “fly high with God.”
The second goal is to promote economic development. Poverty is enormous and pervasive, so KAO has undertaken a micro-enterprise lending program. The church, aided by Discover, has provided small amounts of money to people for such diverse work as a pedi-cab driver, locksmith, baker, food-cart owner, and cell phone salesman. Local Muslims are eligible for assistance, since KAO is dedicated to ministering to its neighborhood.
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