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Teaching a lesson

Indonesia | West Java court makes examples of three Sunday school teachers

Issue: "New Orleans: Starting over," Sept. 24, 2005

If Indonesian radicals are keeping a tally of their wins and losses, the first two weeks of September delivered one of each. On Sept. 13 a court handed down a death sentence for a terrorist who helped plan and execute a suicide bombing that killed 10 at Jakarta's Australian embassy last year-a rare verdict compared to sentencing of terrorists in the West. By contrast, radical Muslims won a case that is little known but could be menacing for the archipelago's minority Christians.

On Sept. 1 a West Java court gave three-year sentences to three Sunday school teachers for including Muslim children in their local church program, called Happy Sunday. More specifically, the court convicted the three women under Indonesia's Child Protection Act of 2002, which prohibits influencing children to convert to a different religion. The convictions amplify a Muslim drive against church activities. But it also sets a worrying precedent.

It's the first time these laws have been used this way, said Jeff Hammond, a theological lecturer in Jakarta. "It means any Christian anywhere in the country who has a Muslim attend their activities could be accused of proselytization and Christianization."

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The three Javan women-Rebekka Zakaria, Eti Pangesti, and Ratna Bangun-were careful. Their Muslim Sunday school students received written permission from their parents allowing them to join, those who did not were turned away, and the church snapped photographs of the parents and children together. But in an unfair trial flooded with obstreperous Muslim radicals, the evidence meant little.

During a trial that lasted two months, Muslim radicals arrived in truckloads threatening to kill witnesses, judges, and defendants if the women were acquitted. One truck even bore a coffin, a belligerent reminder of how the radicals would apply Islamic justice if the court declared the women innocent. After hearing the verdict, the radicals burst into shouts of "Allahu Akbar!" or "God is great!"

While the Sunday school teacher trial in Indramayu garnered slight attention, it did attract a plea from former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid. He wrote to the local police in Hargeulis, Indramayu, West Java, in May protesting how authorities were handling the women's case. Amazingly, police largely ignored his letter.

Mr. Hammond visits the women in prison regularly and said they remain in good spirits. Each is a housewife worried about being separated from her children, but they all hope an appeal due within three months will win them justice.

The trial, meanwhile, could be a small effort in a larger campaign to crack down on churches. Church closings are accelerating: 150 in West Java in the last three years, with about 60 in western and central Java in the last two months alone. Behind them is the national radical association, the Indonesian Council of Ulema, or MUI, the highest Islamic authority in the country.

Large Muslim movements are influential in Indonesia, promoting Islam while performing social services. Government funding for social services-about $600,000 a year, according to the Jubilee Campaign-gives MUI its teeth. In July MUI leaders issued 11 fatwas, which included renewing a decades-long ban on a moderate Islamic group and ruling that praying only in Arabic, not Indonesian, is permissible in mosques.

In West Java, MUI relies on a 1969 law requiring government-issued permits for religious buildings. In practice, Christians nationwide have found it virtually impossible to obtain the permits. One example of an obstacle, Mr. Hammond explained, is that the law requires Christians to obtain signed approval from neighborhood residents for a church building. Church leaders find that before they have time to request permission, radicals have already threatened Muslims: Sign, and your life is at risk.

With the courts confirming that Indonesians are bombing Westerners, Mr. Hammond speculates that local radicals are embarrassed by evidence that Islam is fueling global terrorism. "This rise in attacking churches could be a reaction to try and show that the Christian religion violates the law by having illegal church services," he told WORLD. The headline-grabbing terror conviction, oddly, masks what could be a more commonplace campaign by Muslim radicals to thwart Christian activity.

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