A burned church can't rebuild

As one congregation can attest, Indonesia's faltering institutions put a tradition of tolerance at risk.

The Depok suburbs were supposed to be the sort of place where a modern, inclusive "Indonesian" identity replaced religious and racial conflicts of the kind that are now raging in other parts of the country.

But when a mob of self-described "Defenders of Islam" burned the Shalom Protestant Church to the ground, this cosmopolitan university community just outside Jakarta became a frontline in the battle for Indonesia's future.

Since that day in late 1999, Shalom's 1,800 members have continued to meet here on a concrete floor, a nativity scene gracing one of the destroyed walls. They got as far as putting up a cheap tin roof before a threatening letter from the local government warned them to stop rebuilding early this year.

"We aren't the criminals," says church elder T.M. Situmaeng, leaning on a girder at the construction site. "But we are being treated like ones." That treatment has converted Mr. Situmaeng into a reluctant warrior for religious freedom.

With the world focused on separatist movements and the political machinations surrounding faltering President Abdurrahman Wahid, Indonesia's tradition of religious tolerance has come under siege. Groups representing radical political interests are pursuing their agendas in the vacuum created by a failing legal system and government overwhelmed by other crises.

That the preponderance of attacks has been on churches is a function of demographics: In the few places where Muslims are a minority or there's more of a religious balance, attacks on mosques have occurred. Church bombings in seven Indonesian provinces took 19 lives last Christmas Eve. In total, 362 churches were attacked in the turbulent 31 months after the fall of the Suharto regime, according to the Indonesian Christian Communication Forum. That compares to an average of 14 church attacks a year during Suharto's 32-year rule.

This kind of activity poses risks to Indonesia's international relations. The US expects to provide $275 million in direct aid this year, and much more via its contributions to bodies like the International Monetary Fund. But analysts say the Bush administration is already looking to reduce foreign aid, and might find in the religion issue a reason to go after Indonesia's portion. A $5 billion IMF aid program is currently suspended because of dissatisfaction with the government's economic management. Earlier this month, Bush nominated Kenneth Dam, a critic of the IMF's Indonesia bailout, to the second-most powerful position at the US Treasury.

The religious war in the two Maluku provinces has received the most attention. February hearings in Washington by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom singled out the issue - not surprising, given the forced conversions, including circumcisions - of more than 100 Christians by Muslim fighters there late last year.

But these lurid incidents have tended to obscure the fact that religious freedoms are being more subtly eroded across the country. "Maluku is by far the biggest part of the problem - but it's not the only part," says Paul Tahalele, a Christian religious-freedom activist.

In Maluku, dozens of mosques have been burned. In the past month, mostly Christian Dayaks have slaughtered 500 Muslim Madurese in Indonesian Borneo, though race has been more important in that conflict than religion. In May 2000, dozens of Muslims were killed by Christians near Poso, central Sulawesi.

As horrible as the Maluku war has been, it has only accounted for 50 percent of church attacks in the past two years. Dr. Tahalele calls himself "an optimist" and says he's hopeful that the trend is going to slow. "It's a principle that citizens should be free to exercise their rights."

Diplomats and analysts worry that if Tahalele is wrong, and the problem continues to deepen, Indonesia - a diverse nation of 220 million people - will lose one more of the ties that have bound it since independence in 1945. Though home to the world's largest Muslim population, roughly 15 percent of Indonesia's people adhere to other religions, mainly Christianity or Hinduism.

For the sake of national unity, religious freedom has been constitutionally protected. Under Suharto, violence was swiftly punished by a government concerned above all with social control. But institutional responses under Mr. Wahid have been alarming.

Many churches, like Shalom, have been prevented from rebuilding by local officials. The reason isn't clear. In the case of Shalom, Situmaeng says they must be either sympathetic to radical interests or too afraid to take a stand.

Yet the curtailment of freedoms is not the result of a central government agenda. "If it were, you could imagine bringing effective pressure to bear to make it stop," says one Western diplomat. "But the central government has no plan at all."

"The anti-Christian sentiment behind the violence ... is not new, but the impunity associated with such acts is," the US State Department said regarding Indonesia in its 2000 report on the state of human rights. "Such impunity has contributed significantly to the attacks that have occurred since [Suharto] resigned in May 1998."

After Suharto deputy B.J. Habibie's time as president ended in October 1999, Wahid, leader of the country's largest Muslim social organization, was hailed for his commitment to a plural Indonesia. But to observers, his scattershot approach to governance and failure to take practical steps in support of his ideals have allowed bigotry to flourish like never before.

In Depok, months before the burning, there were neighborhood whispers about an assault by the Islamic Defenders Front, a group that has been attacking churches and nightclubs in the Jakarta area for the past two years. The church was tipped off the night before the attack, and arranged for police guards. But when men arrived on trucks, with white headbands and bottles of kerosene, witnesses say the police backed off. No arrests were made, then or since.

The church was destroyed just days after Wahid's election. A parade of officials, including the minister of religion, came through Depok, promising that justice would be served. "I told them all we need is our permit. They promised they'd help," says Situmaeng. But "their promises have been worth nothing." In October, after lobbying officials for the permit for almost a year, Situmaeng's congregation began to rebuild without it. Then on Jan. 18, the Depok building department issued a sternly worded cease-and-desist order, which said that "Under the law, unlicensed buildings can be demolished."

"What are the police doing? What is our president doing? We're Indonesian citizens, but the law doesn't protect us anymore," says Situmaeng. "The feeling of tolerance is starting to fade."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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