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How bad Is Muslim persecution of Christians in Indonesia?

Posted: February 24, 2014 at 11:25 am   /   by

Indonesian Christmas Celebration at the Embassy

Hugh Iwanicki

As an Elder at my Presbyterian Church in the Metro DC area, I get placed on mailing lists that sometimes cause me to receive unusual invitations.  One of those invitations came via a church where my pastor, the Rev. Dr. Chris Looker had served previously: the Emmanuel Indonesian Presbyterian Church. The invitation was for the Embassy of Indonesia’s annual Christmas celebration, co-hosted by 17 local Indonesian churches and religious organizations.

The location of the event was at the Indonesian Embassy in Washington D.C. I was surprised that the government of Indonesia, with the world’s largest Muslim population – about 238 million – would host such a Christmas event.  While Indonesia is nothing like Islamic nations such as Saudi Arabia on the Christian persecution index, I had still heard many stories of Christian persecution there.  With curiosity getting the better of me, I replied and accepted the RSVP for the event.

The Embassy is located at 2020 Massachusetts Ave. NW, in Washington D.C., in a beautiful ornate mansion. It had been built by Irish immigrant and mining magnate Thomas Walsh in 1903 for what was then an astonishing sum: $835,000. At that time it was the most expensive residence in D.C., boasting 60, rooms, a ballroom, a theater and a grand staircase.

As I walked toward the Embassy I was amazed at the apparent lack of security.  The event was open to the public and the gate for entering the outer perimeter compound was wide open, as was the front door of the Embassy.  I could see only one guard, discreetly concealed behind a glass enclosure.

I walked around a curved hallway and stepped into an open ballroom that was connected to another large room, whose layout made clear that it was meant for entertaining.  The Embassy was ornately decorated with a grand wooden staircase, mahogany paneling, etched molding, crystal chandlers, and stained glass windows on the ceiling. Surrounding the staircase was a group of young American-Indonesians, flirting with each other and texting on their iPhones.

The Christmas celebration format was similar to that of a Church, complete with Christmas hymns and three or four pastors giving their homilies. There were approximately 300-400 people in attendance, and I quickly noticed that I was one of only about five white people there.  I began to wonder if the service was going to only be in Indonesian, but I didn’t have to wonder long because the Pastors began speaking in a completely unintelligible language.

The Pastors were followed by Ambassador Dr. Dino Patti Djalal, who spoke in both unaccented English and Indonesian. The Ambassador told us that Indonesia has over 65,000 churches, while there are only about 30,000 in the UK, implying that Christianity was flourishing in Indonesia even better than in jolly old England.  The Ambassador then stressed how Muslims, Christians, and Hindus are ALL equal before the law.

Shortly after the Ambassador’s speech, I walked to the back of the ballroom and joined a small group of people chatting there.  One of these people was a Christian Indonesian immigrant named “Gema”, who had come to the United States in 2001.

As we talked, I commended the Ambassador’s speech about how Muslims, Christians, and Hindus are ALL equal before the law.

“Oh, he’s a politician. What he’s saying is not true.” Gema said in a matter-of-fact tone, “Christians are not equal in Indonesia. It’s all a charade.”

When I asked how this could be so, he explained that Indonesian Christians face discrimination in the workplace, in the issuance of church building permits, and in the chronic threat of violence from extremists groups. He mentioned a recent case in which an Indonesian Christian was sentenced to three years of prison for evangelizing to Muslims.

“Indonesia is a big country, and if you are in a Christian-majority area, the Muslims are quite welcoming to you. But if you are in a Muslim-majority area they are hostile to you.”

During the service, I sat next to Adam, a native of the Spice Islands who had lived in the United States for almost 20 years.  Apparently Adam thought that I might be a promising business partner, because he told me that there was a great mining investment in his home island that I should consider. I told him that mining was not my specialty, but soon realized that there was much more to this man than a sales pitch. I quickly became impressed with Adam’s knowledge of the Bible as he rattled off numerous verses from memory during our conversation.

Nearly all of the service sounded like gibberish, but Adam rescued me several times with translations that helped me follow along.  The sermons’ Bible verses were displayed on a TV in Indonesian, but their references were also listed in English, making it possible for me to Google them on my iPhone and see English translations.

There was an articulate young Embassy spokesman who co-MC’ed the event, whose name Adam informed me was “Luke.” Adam also told me that his father had been a former EIPCUSA  Pastor, and that he had been killed in a car accident.  This was when I realized that Luke’s dad was the pastor of the very same Emmanuel Indonesian Presbyterian Church where my pastor had previously served.

The car accident was tragic, but it quickly reminded me of an even greater tragedy that I suddenly realized had happened to Luke’s uncle, who was once a Pastor in Indonesia.  Rev. Looker had told me about Luke’s uncle years ago: One night, he had been sitting in his home in Indonesia when a group of men in white shirts – that is, Islamist terrorists – crashed through his door. They dragged the Pastor out of his house and, among other things, demanded that he convert to Islam. When he refused to convert, they responded by cutting of his finger.  He still refused, so they chopped off his hand. When he refused again they cut off his arms, and when he refused again they sawed off his legs, and they finished with chopping off his head.  Luke’s uncle had been murdered, slowly and piece-by-piece, until the Islamists finally abandoned his lifeless body parts in a pile. The Pastor’s wife met the same unfortunate fate.

For some strange reason this story never made it to the mainstream media.  Despite the lack of media interest, I could tell that Luke came from a very special family.

After the two-and-a-half hour service ended, a feast was served. Unfortunately, the memories that had come back left me without an appetite.  After some distracting conversation my appetite eventually returned and I joined the others in the back of the ballroom, where tables were arranged with a cornucopia of Indonesian delicacies. The food was delicious, even if the smoking-hot chicken burned a hole in my tongue.

While waiting for my tongue to recover from the spicy chicken, I used the time to look for an opportunity to speak with the Indonesian Ambassador.  I also realized that it may be time to get a new pair of glasses, because the 50-year-old gentleman I assumed to be the Ambassador turned out to be the Defense attaché. Fortunately he was kind enough to guide me to the Ambassador and introduce me to him.  As we walked, I hoped that this kindly gentleman wasn’t one of the army leaders who participated in the slaughter of thousands of East Timorese Christians at the hands of the Indonesian Army.

The Defense attaché introduced me to a group that was chatting with the Ambassador.  To the left of the Ambassador was Pastor Hamel, of EIPCUSA, whom I hadn’t previously met. After an exchange of greetings, Rev. Hamel introduced me to the Ambassador.  Having Googled the Ambassador a short while earlier, I was able to tell the Ambassador that I had a cousin who graduated from the same Canadian university as he.

The Ambassador was delighted to meet someone who could also speak with enthusiasm about his alma mater, and we got into a lively and enjoyable conversation. With our good feelings well established, I mentioned that I was an Elder in the PCUSA and had a concern regarding the persecution of Christians in Indonesia, especially in places like Aceh Province, where Sharia (Islamic) law had been introduced.  He said he was aware of these cases, and when they were brought to his attention he always contacted the appropriate government ministry officials in Indonesia.

I was about to mention how churches were being denied building permits when he finished my sentence for me by stating, “I’m also aware of instances where churches have been denied building permits; this is a problem we’ve been working on. However, you’re probably not aware of the opposite problem where Mosques have trouble getting building permits in Christian majority areas in Indonesia.”

His comment stumped me, but I got a sense that this may not really be the case, or that the degree of the problem was vastly disproportional, because it appeared that his intention was to throw me off this line of conversation. Subsequent research on Google confirmed my suspicion, because I could only find one article on the issue of Indonesian Mosques being denied building permits, and it only discussed an Ahmadi Mosque that was forcibly closed by the Sunni-controlled government. The officials claimed that the mosque didn’t have proper permits, even though those Ahmadis had worshipped there for over 21 years.

In other words, this mosque had not been closed down by Christians, but by the Sunnis who considered Ahmadis to be apostates.  Meanwhile, scores of links came up when I Googled for Indonesian churches that had been denied building permits.

Later in my conversation with the Ambassador, I asked whether people were allowed to convert from Islam to Christianity.  “Oh yes,” he replied, “Certainly they are. In fact we recently had a government official do just that.”

Another Google search revealed that the Ambassador had engaged in a classic case of political double-speak. According to Wikipedia (emphasis added):

A few Islamic majority nations [Including Indonesia] prosecute apostasy even though they do not have apostasy laws, and only have blasphemy laws. In these nations, there is no general agreement or legal code to define “blasphemy”. The lack of definition and legal vagueness has been used to include apostasy as a form of blasphemy. For example, in Indonesia, the phrase used in the Blasphemy Law is penyalahgunaan dan/atau penodaan agama, meaning “to misuse or disgrace a religion”. Persons accused of blasphemy have included murtad (apostate), kafir (non-Muslim/unbeliever), aliran sesat (deviant group), sesat (deviant), or aliran kepercayaan (mystical believers). Indonesia has invoked blasphemy laws to address crimes of riddah (apostasy); zandaqah (heresy); nifaq (hypocrisy); and kufr (unbelief). Islamic activists have demanded, and state prosecutors have proposed, prison sentences up to death as punishment for such crimes.

The Ambassador had been very gracious with his time, and I had felt no rush in my conversation with him, in contrast with some politicians I’ve encountered, who’d talk with you while one eye looked over your shoulder at their next target.

I said my goodbyes to the Ambassador and his wife and then headed for the restroom. As I entered the restroom, I noticed some strange sink-like fixtures bolted on the ground with small faucets attached.  I was puzzled as to their purpose until I remembered that they were foot basins that devout Muslims use before praying.  I also remembered that these were the same kind of foot baths that have recently been installed in many American universities, even ones with tiny Muslim populations.

Indonesia is more welcoming to non-Muslims than many other Islamic nations, such as Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iran, Egypt, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Eretria, Afghanistan, or Pakistan, and I was thankful that the Ambassador was willing to discuss some sensitive issues while co-hosting the Embassy’s Christmas celebration. At the same time, I was left with no illusions about what life there is like for Christians, and will long remember the words of Gema: “Christians in Indonesia are NOT equal under the law, it’s all a charade.”

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How bad Is Muslim persecution of Christians in Indonesia?