The man accused of injuring four people in an attack on an Indonesian church on Sunday morning (11 February) acted alone and obtained the weapon – a one-metre-long sword – in exchange for his mobile phone, police say.

The suspect, a 23-year-old student identified as Suliyono from Bayuwangi in East Java, had attempted to travel to Syria and had shown signs of being radicalised, The Straits Times reported.

But so far, no evidence has been found that he was linked with a wider extremist network, a police spokesman said, according to the newspaper. It appears he acted as a lone-wolf when he entered the St. Lidwina Catholic Church in the city of Yogyakarta on Sunday morning and allegedly injured the 81-year-old priest, Father Karl-Edmund Prier, as well as two other church members and a police officer, before he was taken down by a gunshot to his thigh. Church statuary were also damaged in the attack. In a video that went viral he can be seen waving a sword at the front of the church.

Suliyono was charged on Tuesday, 13 February, under three different laws related to persecution, sharp-weapon ownership and terrorism. A conviction under the 2003 terrorism law carries the possibility of the death penalty.

Local sources told World Watch Monitor that Suliyono was an alumnus of an Islamic boarding school in East Java and known by the villagers as a good Quran reader. According to police, he was radicalised as a student in Sulawesi when he joined several religious organisations.

Religious freedom

A day after the attack, Indonesia President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said there was no room for intolerance. “Our Constitution guarantees religious freedom,” he said. “We will not give even the slightest amount of room to those who promote and spread intolerance in our country. Especially those who act with violence.”

Moderate Muslim leaders condemned the attack. “The act of assault and violence is not part of any religious teachings and beliefs,” Helmy Faishal Zaini, general secretary of Nahdlatul Ulama, the country’s largest moderate Muslim organisation, told the Catholic news agency UCAN. “Islam condemns acts of violence, especially if it is done in houses of worship.”

The radicalisation of Indonesian youth was highlighted during the 2017 blasphemy trial of Jakarta’s former Governor, Ahok, a Christian and ethnic Chinese.

In November, World Watch Monitor reported that a survey of 4,000 high-school and university students showed nearly 20 per cent “support the establishment of a [Muslim] caliphate over the current secular government” and that one in four was willing to fight to achieve this.

‘Guarantee protection’

Earlier this month, Catholics from another church in Yogyakarta were confronted by a group of local Muslims, who claimed that through their social work, Christians were attempting to convert people to their faith.

Father Endra Wijayanto, head of the Justice and Peace Commission of the Archdiocese of Yogyakarta, called on the police to “guarantee protection and security to churches” and to assume “a proactive attitude to prevent further episodes of violence, protecting the fundamental rights of all Indonesian citizens, without exception”. In a statement sent to Agenzia Fides, he said the Church “actively supports the values of Pancasila [the philosophical foundation of the Indonesian state] and the Constitution of 1945, which guarantees freedom of religion and worship [and] the protection of human rights for Indonesian citizens”.

Decree ‘abused’

Meanwhile, however, about 450 religious leaders have said that a decree regulating places of worship has been abused by some local government authorities to block the construction of churches. According to UCAN the 2006 decree “states that religious officials should provide the signatures of 90 worshippers, as well as signed support from at least 60 residents. Village heads also need to approve the building of a new church or other place of worship”.

This has made it difficult for churches to obtain a building permit and over the years hundreds of churches have been closed for failing to show the necessary documentation when questioned. This has resulted in many Protestants finding alternative places, gathering in shopping malls or outside, as is the case for example with the GKI Yasmin Church in Bogor, West Java. For the past seven years the church has been holding open-air services outside the Presidential palace after it was closed down and pastors were later told they could reopen only if they also allowed a mosque on the premises.

On the most recent Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian, Indonesia rose from 46th position last year to 38th in 2018.

“The situation for Christians has deteriorated in the course of recent years,” Open Doors said.