Attacks test Indonesia's religious tolerance (Feature)
By Ahmad Pathoni Aug 19, 2010, 11:09 GMT
Jakarta - Recent attacks on minority religious groups by hardline Muslims and the authorities' perceived inaction have raised concerns about growing intolerance in Indonesia.
Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, boasts a tradition of religious tolerance, but an upsurge of Islamic conservatism in recent years has led to the emergence of tiny but vocal radical groups seeking to impose their strict interpretations of Islam.
Moderate Muslims and human rights groups have criticized authorities for not taking stronger action against such radical Islamic groups despite violence by their members.
'Rising religious conservatism has made officials, politicians and members of the public reluctant to speak out against conservatism,' said Ulil Abshar Abdalla, an activist with the Islamic Liberal Network, a group that promotes religious tolerance.
Last week, Muslim hardliners, allegedly members of the Islamic Defenders' Front, raided a religious service conducted by the Protestant Christian Batak Community congregation in Bekasi near Jakarta.
Witnesses said police guarded the service but appeared to have been caught unprepared by the raid.
'Not only did the police condone the attack, it appeared that it was the intention for the attack to happen,' said Hendrik Siagian, a lawyer for the Christian community, who accused the mob of assaulting some members of the congregation.
The congregation had been forced to pray in an open field after their church was closed by local authorities owing to a land dispute.
The Islamic Defenders' Front has denied its members were involved in the attack, saying that local residents were angry because the congregation insisted on building the church despite a lack of permit from the authorities.
The Front and other hardline Islamic groups have accused Christians in Bekasi of a campaign to convert local Muslims, a charge denied by the Christians.
Setara Institute, a human rights group, said in a report published in July that there had been an increase in cases of religious intolerance against Christians this year.
Between January and July, there were 28 cases of attacks, forcible church closures and other forms of harassment against Christian communities, compared to 18 last year, the institute said.
'The violations that we documented were based on the argument that the existence of the churches had caused restlessness among the communities,' the group said.
'The violations were also justified by the argument that these buildings violated construction permits.'
Christians make up about 13 per cent of Indonesia's 135 million people.
Even though churches can be found in many places in Indonesia, Christians complain that it is extremely difficult to get permits to build new ones.
Last month, radical Islamic groups attacked members of the Ahmadiyya Islamic sect, deemed deviant by mainstream Muslims for not recognizing Muhammad as the last of the prophets, and closed their mosque in the West Java district of Kuningan.
More than 150 Ahmadiyya members have lived in temporary shelters on Lombok Island after attackers burned their homes in 2006.
Muslims argue that Ahmadis should renounce their allegiance to Islam and form a separate religion.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose coalition government includes Islamic parties, this week urged Indonesians to practise tolerance.
'I want to underline the need for us to maintain and strengthen harmony and tolerance as a nation,' Yudhoyono said in the speech on the eve of the country's Independence Day celebrations on August 17.
'We want all citizens to live their lives in peace and harmony in accordance with their rights,' he said, without referring to the recent cases.
But Din Syamsuddin, chairman of Muhammadiyah, the country's second largest Muslim organization with 35 million members, said the biggest blame for the violence should be placed on the police and the government.
'I strongly condemn these acts of violence because they are against the principles of Islam and the freedom of religion as recognized by the constitution,' Syamsuddin said.
'I and other religious leaders have urged the groups to renounce violence, but we can only do so much because it's the job of the police to deal with such criminal acts,' he said.
'The government's inaction and ineffectiveness means this kind of thing keeps happening.'