Muslims constitute 87.2 percent of Indonesia’s population, while Christians make up almost 9.9 percent (7 percent Protestant and 2.9 percent Catholic). Christians face violence at the hands of Muslim militant groups, who are emboldened by laws and certain sectors of government, despite the fact that Indonesia is the world’s largest Muslim democracy and has a robust tradition of interreligious harmony. 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. Under this structure, Christians have prospered, tripling their share of the national population and becoming disproportionately represented in the middle class as well as in business, the arts, and other sectors. The two largest Islamic political and social movements, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) 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.
Still, 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. For example, one night in September 2008, an Indonesian pastor was sitting in his home in Aceh when a group of Islamists crashed through his door. They dragged the pastor out of his house and demanded that he convert to Islam. When he refused, they cut off 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, ending by chopping off his head. The pastor’s wife met the same fate. This societal violence has been encouraged by certain sectors of the state, especially through the president’s own encouragement 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.
The dominant Christian responses to these developments have been ones of association, building alliances with the majority of Muslims who are dedicated to preserving Pancasila.
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 through 2016. At times, especially during the violence of 1999–2003, Christians have formed militias to defend themselves, a response that was more common among local Protestant churches but less common among Protestant and Catholic national leaders who were more apt to pursue peace-building through interreligious ties. 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. Christians sometimes engage in demonstrations—for instance, over the refusal to grant permits to construct churches. These largely associational responses are characteristic of a Christian minority that experiences repression in a democratic setting.