Police officers perform security checks at Jakarta’s Church of St. Joseph, December 2016

Churches in Jakarta are on high alert after Indonesia’s capital was the target yesterday (24 May) for two suicide bombers. The attacks killed three policemen based at a bus terminal ahead of policing for a pre-Ramadan parade.

Yohanes Bao Keraf, head of security at St Joseph’s church, which is a few kilometres from the blast, said: “There is a feeling of fear… we are co-ordinating with police on heightened security measures.”

The church has good reason to be alarmed. Jamaah Islamiyah militants bombed St. Joseph’s, and other churches in Jakarta and other cities, on Christmas Eve in 2000, killing 18. In 2016 members of the church escaped unhurt after an attacker, apparently inspired by the murder in France of Father Jacques Hamel, was overpowered by parishioners as he assaulted a priest. A suicide belt the attacker was wearing failed to detonate.

Meanwhile in West Java, the province adjacent to the capital, Christians are being failed by the authorities as pressure from local Muslims is forcing many churches to close. The Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace says the province recorded the country’s highest number (41) of incidents of religious intolerance last year.

Meanwhile, the congregation of West Java’s Yasmin Indonesian Christian Church, which was closed in 2010 and is now almost covered by undergrowth, have been holding their services outside the presidential palace in Jakarta as a protest against government inaction over their case.

The Yasmin Indonesian Christian Church building in Bogor, West Java. Photo: ucanews.com

According to Bonar Tigor Naipospos, deputy chairman of Setara, radical Islamic groups in the province now thrive because politicians use them to get re-elected. “They believe these groups are machines to reap Muslim voters,” he said.

The trial and sentencing of Jakarta’s Christian ex-governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (also known as “Ahok”) as well as his withdrawal of his appeal puts the spotlight on the influence of radical Islam in Indonesia and its political and judicial institutions, as well as the freedom of religion.

A day before Ahok said he would not challenge the two year prison sentence he received for blasphemy, the UN called on the Indonesian government to repeal blasphemy laws which they say undermine religious freedom in the Muslim-majority nation. UN officials added that Ahok’s sentence was “disappointing” as “instead of speaking out against hate speech by the leaders of the protests, the Indonesian authorities appear to have appeased incitement to religious intolerance and discrimination.”

The UN’s human rights experts refer to the rallies and protests in the run-up to, and after Ahok’s bid for re-election as Jakarta’s governor earlier this year. In September he was charged with blasphemy, following a comment he made during his campaign saying that – despite what their leaders said the Quran prescribed – Muslims could vote for non-Muslims if they wanted to. This was recorded on video and a manipulated version went viral on the internet.

Paul Marshall, Professor of Religious Freedom at Baylor University and senior fellow at the Leimena Institute in Jakarta, amongst others, describes how the semi-official Indonesian Ulema Council issued a fatwa (a religious ruling) saying that Ahok had blasphemed: “Shortly after that the radical, sometimes violent, Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI) teamed up with the newly formed “National Movement to Safeguard the Indonesian Ulema Council’s Fatwa” to demand that Ahok be arrested. There were massive demonstrations in Jakarta in November and December. On November 16, the police announced that he was being officially investigated for blasphemy.”

Religion or politics?

“While religion was the dominant feature of the campaign, it was warped by massive political manipulation and other salient factors”, writes Marshall. He says it was clear “that major political players were funding the radicals. The FPI can make a lot of noise, but does not have the capability to organize massive demonstrations. Someone else was paying for those thousands of busses to bring in demonstrators from afar, as well as the neatly printed signs and shirts.”

Jakarta’s governor, ‘Ahok’ during his trial for alleged blasphemy, 2017.

According to him many of those who support the militant Islamic groups are not particularly Islamic themselves. Among them are some generals who would like “to erode democracy and return Indonesia to an authoritarian system with a large role for the military.”

Both the election campaign and Ahok’s trial reveal the growing radicalization in Indonesia’s Muslim population, Marshall says.

“This is often led by a well-funded Saudi network of radical literature, schools, scholarships, imams, and mosques determined to wrest Indonesians away from their interpretations of Islam, which encourage democracy and peaceful relations between religions.”

Hardline Islam

Paul Marshall writes that “Indonesian Muslims are eager to affirm moderasi, or the Qur’anic term wasatiyah, meaning ‘balanced and just’ Islam–an Islam called to be a supportive gift to the world”. This variant of Islam (“Islam of the Archipelago”) is shaped by Indonesia’s geography and history as the world’s largest archipelago with 15,000 islands, and is characterized by beliefs and cultures that are more comfortable living alongside people with other backgrounds. This is summarized in the ‘Pancasila’, the Indonesian state philosophy of unity, justice and democracy.

This is in contrast with the more orthodox and restrictive variants of Islam like Wahhabism, which is the dominant belief in countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The vast majority of Indonesian Muslims “repudiate [these] intolerant interpretations of Islam and resist more repressive versions being exported from the Middle East into their land”, according to Marshall.

Just a day before the North Jakarta Court sent Ahok to jail for blasphemy, the government announced it would impose a permanent ban on Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) for promoting a philosophy that contradicts Pancasila.

HTI was not a prominent member of the anti-Purnama coalition but National Police Chief Gen. Tito Karnavian and Political Coordinating Minister Wiranto say the organization’s support for an Islamic caliphate disrupted social order.

Thomas Muller, persecution analyst at World Watch Research, calls it “surprising that an organization like Hizbut Tahrir is banned, while a much more violent organization such as FPI is not targeted by the authorities. Given that Christians increasingly face difficulties one would expect the administration to act more decisively against ‘trouble-makers’ in order to preserve the country’s ‘Pancasila’. However, it seems that Indonesia is now heading in a different direction. As one long-term observer put it, in Indonesia one can observe a ‘Wahhabization by stealth.”


A visit by the Saudi King Salman to Indonesia in March this year raised concerns about the influence of the Saudi Kingdom and how Indonesian Islam is beginning to shed its historic reputation for tolerance and moderation.

Anti-Wahhabi moderate Sunni Islamic Indonesian groups have long complained about Saudi-financed efforts in Indonesia to spread Salafi-Wahhabi, thought as a source of the country’s increasingly perceptible rise in hardline Islam.

It would not be the first time that economic and geo-political concerns get mixed up with religion. Indonesia is the world’s largest country with a Muslim majority. However, there are parallels with the situation in the Horn of Africa where a toxic relationship between faith and money has been playing itself out in the last couple of years.

Indonesia is a long way from becoming another Saudi Arabia, says author and journalist John McBeth “but religious and political leaders have done little over the past 17 years of democratic rule to stem a creeping tide of Islamization that runs counter to the country’s secular constitution”.

He points out that it gained so much ground that the current administration of President Joko Widodo is struggling to control it – which is clearly illustrated by Ahok trial. What is more, on his watch acts of intolerance against religious and ethnic minorities have increased.

Under Widodo, who, according to sources close to the Presidential palace, was “upset” and “disappointed” over the court’s decision to send Ahok to prison, the blasphemy laws are still being used and the destruction and closure of churches and temples a reality.

West Java

West Java for example is a province that is known for its failure to maintain religious freedom and where also religious violence has been increasing.

According to Bonar Tigor Naipospos, the deputy chairman of rights group Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, the province has a long history of Islamic fundamentalism.

Although “former leaders Soekarno and Suharto largely suppressed radical groups […] this began to change after the fall of Suharto in 1998 – with the rise of groups such as the Islamic Defenders’ Front, Indonesian Mujahidin Council and Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia”, he says.

He notes that some regional politicians appear to be working “handinglove” with hard-line groups: “They use radical Islamic groups to be re-elected [and] believe these groups are machines to reap in Muslim voters.” The result is more pro-Islamic rules and regulations, observers say.

West Java had the highest incidence of religious intolerance in Indonesia, with 41 cases reported last year of which most incidents were carried out by hardliners, according to a report by the Setara Institute.

It is this province that will hold a gubernatorial election in April 2018 and John McBeth notes that president Widodo will already be “looking ahead to what will be a major pre-election test” of his popularity.

Sealed and padlocked

Last year the brand new Santa Clara Church in Bekasi was sealed off by an Islamist group, demanding that its permit be annulled. The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) started an appeal on the church’s behalf, calling for the government to “revise the law on the establishment of worship places without any discrimination among the various religions and beliefs that exist in Indonesia”.

Many situations involve local government authorities interfering, as for example with the GKI Yasmin Church in Bogor, West Java.

The church was sealed and padlocked by order of the mayor of Bogor and the city government seven years ago. The mayor claimed that the previous sub-village head had falsified community signatures and that the church brought trouble with local Muslim neighbors. Later he said that the church should not be built on a street with an Islamic name. Over the years the GKI Yasmin Church held meetings in different places but since 2012 has been holding open-air services outside the Presidential palace in Jakarta, in protest against government inaction over their plight.

In February the church was told by the mayor that it could reopen if it also allowed a mosque on its premises. However church spokesman, Bona Sigalingging, said that no progress has been made since then. After years of abandonment, the church building is now filled with weeds and the exterior is almost covered by undergrowth.

Bogor district head, Nurhayati, recently said a local ban order on places of worship for Christians was imposed to maintain peace and harmony among religious believers. The reason often used is that they do not have the proper permit or license to worship.

There are also the two Catholic and one Protestant church in Bogor which were banned from holding religious activities because local authorities said they could not guarantee the safety of the communities, and that the three churches did not have official permission to use the houses where they were gathering as houses of worship.

According to the churches, the closure however followed pressure by local Muslims which has been building over many years while they’ve continued meeting.

To obtain a permit to set up a place of worship Christians need to have at least 90 signatures from church members and the consent of at least 60 members of local Muslim communities. In reality this turns out to be a very difficult thing to achieve.

Tolerance and brotherhood

It is in this context, where Indonesia’s social and political fabric is being stretched, that Father Robertus Rubiyatmoko (53) was ordained as the new archbishop of Semarang, the capital of Central Java, on 19 May. The sixth archbishop and the youngest of Indonesia’s 10 serving archbishops, realizes he has his work cut out for him: “The archdiocese wants to create a culture of love in society. Catholics can promote a harmonious life which shows tolerance and brotherhood”. He said rising sectarianism had led to intolerance and national unity was at risk. He vowed to encourage Catholics to build good relations based on love of people from different religious backgrounds.