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Indonesia | The jailing of three Christian women has emboldened Muslim radicals and jeopardized house churches in West Java

Issue: "Snakepit," Feb. 11, 2006

For three Christian women jailed for including Muslim children in a church program in West Java, Indonesia, the prospects of winning an early release from prison grew dim late last month. Indonesia's Constitutional Court refused to consider a legal challenge filed on behalf of Rebekka Zakaria, Eti Pangesti, and Ratna Bangun, who are serving three-year sentences handed down by a West Javan court in September. The court convicted the Sunday school teachers under Indonesia's Child Protection Act, which prohibits influencing children to convert to a different religion ("Teaching a lesson," Sept. 24, 2005).

The women allowed their Muslim Sunday school students to participate in the church program only if they showed written permission from their parents. The church even snapped photographs of the children and their parents together. But a trial filled with violent threats by Muslim radicals sealed the women's convictions and signaled a fresh wave of persecution against Indonesia's Christian minority.

A Bandung court rejected the women's first appeal in November, and late last month the Constitutional Court refused to hear a legal challenge mounted by Ruyandi Hutasoit, pastor of Church of the Shining Christian in Jakarta. Lawyers for Mr. Hutasoit argued that the Child Protection Act violates Indonesia's constitution, which says citizens may practice the religion of their choice. The court ruled that Mr. Hutasoit could not contest the act because he had not experienced any "direct losses" under it. The court also indicated that the act was consistent with the constitution.

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Though the legal losses were disheartening to the women who have already served eight months in jail since their arrests last year, Ann Buwalda of the Jubilee Campaign told WORLD they are "holding up quite well under the circumstances." Ms. Buwalda's Virginia-based religious freedom group has staff and contacts in Indonesia who regularly visit the women. They say the women are "quite brave" and seem to be treated well. But each is separated from family and children at home, and that is "the greatest hardship for them to bear," according to Ms. Buwalda.

Jubilee Campaign will soon file a petition on behalf of the women to a UN committee on arbitrary detention. The group hopes the UN will agree that there was "no semblance of justice" at the women's trial, and pressure the Indonesian government for a release. Ms. Buwalda says the conviction "threatens freedom of assembly and freedom of religion, and even the act of being nice to someone of a different faith," and says it has "emboldened" radical Islamists.

Government-forced closings of dozens of churches in the West Java region in recent months serve as evidence of emboldened persecution. Ms. Buwalda says her group has counted "upwards of 40 churches" that the government has forced to close since last summer. Compass Direct reported that local officials in Bandung, West Java, ordered eight house churches in a local housing complex to close as of Jan. 15, charging that the churches do not have permits to meet in private homes. Church leaders say they have applied for permits, but that their applications have been repeatedly rejected.

Ms. Buwalda says the church closings are part of a wider campaign of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), a government-sponsored organization of Muslim clerics who oppose Muslim cooperation with non-Muslims. Ms. Buwalda says MUI leaders use threats to stir neighborhood opposition to churches that have existed for decades. Without support from Muslim neighbors, Christian churches can't meet in private homes. "It's their mode of operation, and it's working," she says.

Though most church closings have been concentrated in West Java, the government may soon set its sights on Jakarta, the bustling capital city that has dozens of new church groups. Most churches meet in rented rooms at hotels and office buildings since "hostility towards the Christian minority makes it simply impossible to build a church structure in Jakarta," according to Ms. Buwalda. She says Christians in Jakarta fear they will "be the next target after West Java is purged of its churches."

In the meantime, Christians in West Java are coping with the recent church closings in different ways: Some are meeting in smaller groups dispersed among several homes. Some have relocated to areas far away from most members' homes. Some are still undecided about where to meet. Church leader Yohanes Pangarso told Compass Direct that on Jan. 8 his church abandoned the home it had been meeting in since 1993. After a mob surrounded the home during a Sunday morning service, and a subsequent warning from local officials, "we decided we cannot use this house anymore," Mr. Pangarso said.

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