Indonesia’s reputation for pluralism and diversity is under threat by militant ideologues and their supporters, civil liberties activists say
Andreas Yewangoe wants to see more effective steps taken to protect religious tolerance in Indonesia.
“Why can’t we live in harmony and peace in this country, where nobody cares about the differences in our religion, race and ethnicity?” the Indonesian Communion of Churches (PGI) chairman told reporters after an incident in which a hardline Islamist group – the Islamic Defenders’ Front – blocked a local congregation from worshipping at their church.
“This kind of action is really contrary to the Indonesian constitution,” he added.
On May 6th, the congregation of the Batak Christian Protestant Church (HKBP) Filadelfia gathered for a service, only to be heckled and bullied by FPI vigilantes. The Filadefia branch is at the center of an ongoing local dispute in Bekasi, West Java, over whether it has the right to hold Christian services at its church building.
A journalist at the scene, Rhesya Agustine, said the mob was intimidating women with threats of sexual violence. “They yelled at us by saying ‘Rape them! Rape them!’ I was so surprised that the situation was so chaotic”.
Another reporter at the scene, Tantowi Anwari, was beaten — allegedly by FPI members angered by a slogan on his T-shirt. It read: “Fight the tyranny of the majority.” Police had to rush him to safety.
According to a video recording of the attack presented at a press conference, the attacks were led by Murhali Barda, a former head of the Bekasi chapter of the FPI. He was jailed for five months last year for inciting an attack in September 2010 that culminated in the stabbing of two leaders of the HKBP Ciketing, also in Bekasi.
On Thursday (May 17th), a mob again disrupted worship services at the Filadelfia church, blocking access to the building as parishioners tried to enter in order to celebrate the ascension of Jesus.
“We [the churchgoers and the mob] were only separated by a barricade of policemen who managed to protect us even though the intolerant people were trying so hard to break through the barricade,” the Jakarta Post quoted the church’s Reverend Palti Panjaitan as saying.
“They threw urine, sewage and frogs at us — all of which also struck the policemen,” he added.
The melee was one of several recent incidents involving aggressive action by hardline Islamist groups. On May 4th, two days before the church rioting, members of the Indonesian Mujahedeen Council – an organisation linked to convicted terrorist Abu Bakar Bashir – disrupted a book discussion at the Institute for Islamic and Social Studies Foundation in Yogyakarta.
The featured speaker that day was Irshad Manji, a liberal Canadian Muslim activist and author.
“They beat the participants and also my assistant,” Manji told the media. “The attackers wore masks and helmets while they beat innocent people and destroyed everything. They are really cowards.”
Her appearances in Jakarta also provoked threats and disruption, prompting the author to suggest that extremists are undermining the country’s longstanding values.
In a statement to the media, Manji recalled how she visited Indonesia four years ago and found it to be a tolerant, open-minded and pluralistic country. She recounted the experience in her book and suggested that Indonesia was an example for other Muslim countries.
“Unfortunately, things have changed,” Manji said.
“Many people told me that the Indonesian National Police and government are powerless towards these gangsters. But Indonesian citizens must not be powerless,” she added.
Citizens’ groups, meanwhile, are campaigning for better protection of civil liberties. On May 10th, a movement calling itself “FPI-free Indonesia Movement” submitted a petition to the national police, demanding serious action.
Over 1,500 people have joined the campaign, organised via blogs and Twitter.