A whisper of persecution

International | Violence against Christians is giving way to repression by legislation in the world's most populous Muslim country

Issue: "50 family-friendly movies," June 28, 2003

VIOLENCE BETWEEN MUSLIMS AND Christians in Indonesia has died to a whisper in the last several months-but quiet does not mean tolerance. After three years of fighting that ended in more than 12,000 deaths, Muslims appear to have ditched violence in favor undermining Christians through restrictive laws.

The most recent example: Indonesia's parliament on June 11 passed a controversial education bill that requires schools with 10 or more students from any particular religion to provide those students "religious education in their own faith from a teacher of that faith."

That proviso falls heavily on Christian schools. While Christians do not generally send their children to Islamic schools, many Muslims send their children to Christian schools, which have a reputation for superior educational standards. Under the new law, a private Christian school with 10 Muslim students would have to devote its own funds to building a mosque and hiring an Islamic teacher. (Muslim and Hindu schools will have to provide similar Christian programs for Christian students.)

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"That strikes at the heart of religious freedom," said Ann Buwalda, USA director of the Jubilee Campaign, an international advocacy group for persecuted religious minorities. "If it were a public-school matter, I don't think Christians would be concerned. It's the first legislation on a nationwide basis to draw in religious distinctions."

The driving force behind the new bill is the second-largest Muslim movement in Indonesia, called Muhammadiyah. Though nonviolent, the group is committed to establishing Islamic foundations throughout society. Education is one of its main vehicles.

Christian advocacy groups learned of the education bill in January, and thousands of Christians around the country protested the measure. Former president Abdurrahman Wahid also urged parliament either to abandon or revise the bill, fearing it would increase hostility between Muslims and non-Muslims. Galvanizing the opposition delayed the vote but did not kill the bill.

During the final days of debate earlier this month, more than 10,000 Islamic activists rallied outside parliament in support of the measure. According to

the Jarkata Post, "those against the bill, mostly Christian groups, refrained from staging a rival rally at the House, apparently to avoid a clash." Inside the parliament building, two parties opposed the bill, including President Megawati Sukarnoputri's Democratic Party of Struggle, or PDI-P, but the bill passed overwhelmingly.

At its heart, the law aims to prevent Muslim students from converting to Christianity, said Weilin Han, a Jakarta education activist. According to one national Muslim council, about 19,000 Muslim students a year abandon Islam for Christianity. Ms. Han said the new law also contains a more subtle message: Religious obligations now trump national education's original purpose of preparing students for careers and for competing in a global marketplace. "The goal of the education [now] is to be faithful, not to be able to compete," said Ms. Han.

The new law carries no penalties for noncompliance, but an earlier version prescribed a maximum 10-year sentence or $120,000 fine, and Christians worry that the penalties will reappear.

With about 230 million people, Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world; 88 percent of the population is Muslim, while Christians account for 8 percent. The other 4 percent are Buddhists, Hindus, or those who hold indigenous beliefs. Religious and ethnic divisions in the sprawling archipelago erupted after the fall of 32-year dictator President Suharto in 1998. Since then, the country has seen three presidents.

The education bill is not Christians' only concern-Muslims legislators have drafted 63 other bills aimed at stanching the influence of other religions. One titled "Religious Groups Harmony" even prohibits a follower of one religion from attending the worship activities of another. "For example, if I am a Buddhist, I can't go to church," said Ms. Han. "If the elders or somebody in the church knows that I am not a Christian, I will be asked to leave the church."

If this legislative push is not successful, hard-line Muslims could again resort to violence, said Ms. Buwalda. The three-year violence in Maluku and Sulawesi escalated because thousands of outside militants from a Muslim extremist group called Laskar Jihad poured into the provinces to help local communities attack Christians. The organization officially disbanded last year, following more aggressive government efforts to root out terrorist groups after the October bombing of a Bali nightclub that killed more than 200.

Local Muslim leaders and Christians say extremists may just be regrouping. Only 2,000 of 10,000 Laskar Jihad fighters that infiltrated Maluku have left the province, along with only 800 out of 3,000 in Sulawesi. Ms. Buwalda said they may try to assimilate into the local population, but "their radical agenda is still the same. And that radical agenda is jihad-expelling Christian minorities."


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