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Indonesian Christians on Edge at Ahok Trial


A protester holds a banner outside a court during the first day of the blasphemy trial of Jakarta's Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known as Ahok, in Jakarta, Indonesia December 13, 2016.

The blasphemy trial of Jakarta's Chinese Christian governor has begun during anxious times for Indonesian Christians.

Last week, a hardline Muslim group shut down a Christmas celebration in Bandung, West Java, provoking widespread alarm on social media and a pointed statement from the city’s mayor. In subsequent days, another Muslim hardline group forced a Christian university in Yogyakarta to remove billboards featuring hijabi women, and in East Nusa Tenggara, a Christian vigilante group spurred police to arrest nine men who intended to conduct Muslim religious services in the predominantly Christian province.

These snags in Christian-Muslim relations seem to reflect the high pitched discourse surrounding the trial of Jakarta’s governor, Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama. During the last three months, hardline Islamic groups have convened enormous rallies charging that Ahok committed blasphemy by carelessly quoting the Quran.

Although the protests have been largely peaceful, the polarized discourse has empowered critics of many minority groups, including the LGBTQ community and now Christians.

Whether these tensions subside or escalate remains to be seen. Either way, they are a test for Indonesia’s founding Pancasila political philosophy, which officially protects religious diversity.

Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as "Ahok", sits on the defendant's chair during his trial at the North Jakarta District Court in Jakarta, Indonesia, Dec. 13, 2016.
Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, popularly known as "Ahok", sits on the defendant's chair during his trial at the North Jakarta District Court in Jakarta, Indonesia, Dec. 13, 2016.

Call to intensify dialogue

On December 6, members of an Islamic group that calls itself the Ahlu Sunnah Defenders (PAS) protested a planned Christmas service at a public event space in Bandung. The Reformed Injili Indonesia Church bowed to pressure from dozens of PAS protesters, who claimed that the church didn’t obtain the proper permit, and cancelled the event.

But Bandung’s mayor responded with a strongly worded Facebook post demanding a PAS apology for the incident within seven days.“Religious activities do NOT require formal permission from state agencies, just notification to the police,” he wrote.“There should be no civil society groups that place restrictions, . . . or perform public outcry against religious worship.”He also called for the area’s various Muslim groups to “intensify the dialogue between religious communities in the city of Bandung.”

“What happened in Bandung is not new,” said Bonar Tigor Naipospos, Deputy Chairman of the Setara Institute, a human rights research organization. “In the years since Suharto’s fall, intolerant groups have proliferated across Indonesia,” he said, “They’re always pretty smart about playing up certain issues to gain public support – like Christmas.”

Christian backlash

Muslim groups don’t have a monopoly on sectarian action. In the predominantly Roman Catholic province of East Nusa Tenggara (NTT), a group calling themselves the Brigade Meo Timor intercepted nine Muslim men from a mosque in Makassar. They convinced the local police to apprehend the group and send them back home.

The action was not a direct retaliation to the Bandung incident, Ady William Ndiy, of the Brigade Meo Timor, told VOA. He said the men simply didn’t have the proper documentation to conduct religious activity in NTT. Plus, they were affiliated with a hardline Muslim group called Hizbur Tahrir Indonesia, which a Brigade Meo Timor press release described as “an organization whose ideology is contrary to Pancasila and the 1945 Constitution."

Naipospos, of the Setara Institute, disagreed. “What happened in NTT is a reaction to what happened in Jakarta and Bandung,” he told VOA. “Such reactions should be avoided and cannot be justified, because they will likely provoke wider conflicts.”

Toward a more robust pluralism

Indonesia’s moderate Muslims have publicly criticized the Bandung incident and its fallout. Both Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhamadiyyah, the country’s two largest moderate Muslim groups, disapproved of the PAS, and NU deputy secretary-general Imam Pituduh even called for the government to dissolve the group.

“What happened in Bandung and the attendant reaction of law enforcement has a level of absurdity,” Yahya Cholil Staquf, NU’s general secretary, told VOA. “The fact that officials seriously entertained the protest of a hardline group like PAS is like if police tried to mediate a dialogue between a robber and his victim. One party is clearly in the wrong.”

In light of the Indonesian police reluctance to protect Christian religious expression, said Staquf, NU’s youth wing, Barisan Ansor Serbaguna, would help Christians peacefully celebrate Christmas, by, for example, providing guards for churches during Christmas services.

Although Staquf was confident that moderate Indonesian Muslims retain strength in numbers – NU and Muhamidiyyah together claim over 80 million members – he was concerned by the extent to which the Ahok trial has amplified voices of intolerance.

“Everything about Ahok’s case has been so manipulative from the beginning,” said Staquf. “They have very deftly used Islam as a political gimmick.” He hoped a speedy conclusion to Ahok’s trial would slow hardliners’ momentum. “But it’s still very impressive that they have mobilized masses to this extent. It will take a long time for us to recoup our standard of tolerance.”

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