Despite the official Pancasila philosophy that promotes religious pluralism, Christians in Indonesia have faced violence and other denials of religious freedom, as have Muslims deemed “deviationist,” especially Shia and Ahmadis. In recent decades, radical Islamist movements have grown in number and aggressiveness, destroying hundreds of churches, promoting discrimination, and killing Christians in the midst of communal violence. This violence has been encouraged by certain sectors of the state, especially through the informal connivance of governmental officials, the inconsistent enforcement of laws, the passage of a law in 2003 requiring religious schools to teach faiths other than their own, and scores of bylaws instituting sharia at the local level.
Scholarly Analysis: Christian Responses to Persecution in Indonesia
Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Laos, Pakistan
Panel: Findings from South Asia, with Dr. Paul Bhatti, Advisor to the Prime Minister of Pakistan for Minority Affairs
Moderator: Chad Bauman, Butler University
Speakers: Robert Hefner, Boston University
James Ponniah, University of Madras
Reginald Reimer, Expert on Christianity in Vietnam & Laos
Sara Singha, Georgetown University
The largest Muslim-majority country and Muslim democracy in the world, Indonesia today has a population of 255 million people, 87.2 percent of whom are Muslim. Some 9.9 percent of the country’s people are Christian—7 percent Protestant and 2.9 percent Catholic. The remaining 3 percent of the population is made up of Hindus, Buddhists, and Confucians, as well as a few hundred thousand practitioners of local or ethnic religions.
Although Christians comprise just less than 10 percent of the population, their national influence is proportionally far greater. Christians are well represented in the ranks of the middle class and university graduates. They own several of the country’s largest and most respected media conglomerates; figure prominently in the ranks of artists, public intellectuals, and celebrities; and occupy mid-level or senior leadership positions in most of the country’s non-Muslim political parties. Since Indonesia’s independence in 1945, the Christian community has tripled in size.
History of the Indonesian Christian Community
Christianity arrived in Indonesia over the course of several centuries, beginning in 1500, and in close alliance with a competing variety of European imperial powers. The Portuguese were the first to establish a presence in the region. They operated under a strong anti-Muslim zeal, indiscriminately attacking Muslim merchant vessels and slaughtering passengers of ships bound for Mecca. These policies and others laid the foundation for a Muslim hostility to the European presence. Other influences—including Dutch, French, British, and German—fought for dominance in the region over the centuries, and eventually established small pockets of Protestantism and Catholicism. But from the first, these European rivalries shaped the Indonesian encounter with Christianity in a way that dampened prospects for any large-scale native conversion to Christianity. It was not until the final four decades of colonial rule (1900–1942) that Christianity grew significantly.
Upon achieving independence in 1945, Indonesia passed a constitution that established a national philosophy of Pancasila, which permitted five religions, including Islam, Catholicism, and Protestantism, and which was amended in 2000 to allow for six religions. The two largest Islamic political and social movements, the Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, are strong upholders of Pancasila, democracy, and a society-wide level of tolerance and religious freedom. After democracy protests in 1998 led to the fall of Suharto, Indonesia’s dictator of three decades, the first elected president was Abdurrahman Wahid, a blind cleric who espoused a strong policy of religious freedom and tolerance.
Despite the official Pancasila philosophy, Christians have faced violence and other denials of religious freedom, as have Muslims deemed “deviationist,” especially Shia and Ahmadis. The groundwork for this repression was laid in a 1965 blasphemy law, a 1969 regulation controlling the building of houses of worship, and the establishment of the semi-governmental Council of Indonesian Ulama (MUI) in 1975, which issues fatwas, many of an Islamist bent, regarding marriage, education, and other matters.
Persecution increased most dramatically in the years following Suharto. Radical Islamist movements have grown in number and aggressiveness, destroying hundreds of churches, promoting discrimination, and killing Christians in the midst of communal violence, especially between 1999 and 2003. This societal violence has been encouraged by certain sectors of the state, especially through the president’s own endorsement of the MUI’s fatwas, the informal connivance of governmental officials with violence, the inconsistent enforcement of laws, the passage of a law in 2003 requiring religious schools to teach faiths other than their own and contrary to their will, and scores of bylaws instituting sharia at the local level.
A Summary of Christian Responses to Persecution in Indonesia
The dominant Christian responses to religious persecution have been ones of association, building alliances with the majority of Muslims who are dedicated to preserving Pancasila. This was especially true during the pro-democracy campaigns of the 1990s, when Christian leaders enjoyed close relations with the Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). Although 1996 saw a rise in anti-Christian violence, these progressive Muslim groups continued to advocate for pluralism and peace. For instance, after a series of attacks on churches in East Java around 2000, Christian leaders sought help among members of the NU, which placed Muslim security guards around churches, a collaboration that continues to this day.
At times, however, especially during the post-Suharto violence of 1999–2003 when religious groups jockeyed for power, Christians have formed militias to defend themselves. This response was more common among local Protestant churches, who often felt they had no choice but to take up arms, despite the pleas of national leaders to pursue peace-building though interreligious ties. Some of these Christian militia groups were quite violent, even massacring civilians. The Catholic church also urged non-violence peacebuilding and as a whole managed to preserve its reputation among Muslims as a consistent and willing partner in inter-faith initiatives. But at the height of the violence in some regions, lay Catholics too were swept into the fray and formed militias in self-defense.
In other cases, Christian leaders have engaged in political opposition, as when they spoke out against the 2003 education legislation at the time it was first proposed. In this case, Christians sought common ground with Hindus, Buddhists, and progressive Muslims in NU and Muhammadiyah, although they were ultimately unsuccessful in their efforts. Christians also sometimes engage in demonstrations—for instance, over the refusal to grant permits to construct churches. However, not all leaders agree that such loud insistence on religious freedom is the best way to encourage change on a cultural level and strengthen Muslim-Christian relations.
Although international campaigns and legal struggles remain important, the main strategy for the future lies in working with other religious minorities and, above all, the great majority of Indonesian Muslims who remain committed to some version of Pancasila citizenship. The work of Dr. Paulus Sugeng Widjaya, a Mennonite and professor of theology at Duta Wacana University in Yogyakarta, illustrates this well. Frustrated by what he saw as the deteriorating nature of Muslim-Christian relations in the early 2000s, Dr. Widjaja took the unusual step of reaching out to Hizbullah, one of the more infamous Islamist militias in Surakarta. In the aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami in Aceh, Dr. Widjaja approached Hizbullah activists and asked whether they might join him in an aid caravan to the devastated province. Although skeptical at first, the Hizbullah leadership eventually agreed, and the two groups later worked together on other aid projects. Two years later, the Hizbullah leadership astonished observers of Surakarta politics when it announced that it was no longer going to engage in acts of violence.
Theses largely associational responses of Indonesian Christians are characteristic of a minority that experiences repression in a democratic setting.
This country profile draws on research by Dr. Robert Hefner and on the report In Response to Persecution by the Under Caesar's Sword project.