Two church group attacks within 3 days of each other in Indonesia, which has the world’s largest Muslim population, have caused concern ahead of Presidential elections in July. They both occurred in Yogyakarta province’s Sleman regency; the province is in the central region of Java, the country’s most populous island.
During the first incident on May 29, over a dozen armed people in white robes attacked members of Santo Francis Agung Banteng Church while they were holding a prayer gathering in a member’s house. Julius Felicianus, the house owner, was not present during the incident; he rushed home right after his son texted him about the assault.
As he tried talking to the mob, eight people started to beat him, severely injuring him in the head and back. A few other members were assaulted, including an eight-year-old girl who was given an electric shock. Apart from the worshipers, Julius’ neighbor, a reporter from national media Kompas TV, was also beaten up, as he arrived to try to film the raid. Over the next few days, the police arrested three of the assailants, who are allegedly linked to the Islam Defenders Front.
Various assumptions were made about the main motives for the attack. Some were associated with the upcoming Presidential election in July; Julius is apparently an active campaigner of one of the two presidential candidates, the popular Joko “Jokowi” Widodo. In contrast, Yogyakarta Police spokeswoman Adj. Sr. Comr. Anny Pujiastuti stated that the attack was driven by the group’s objections to the religious activity conducted in Julius’ house. As a result, National Police Chief General Sutarman urged the public not to organize collective worship in private residences in order to avoid further acts of violence, as cited by the Jakarta Post.
Only three days after this attack, another incident took place; this time against the Pentecostal Church in Indonesia GPDI El Shaddai in Pangukan village, Sleman Regency. During Sunday Service, a mob of unidentified people barged through the church doors. Police officers came and prevented the violence from escalating. As the congregation left the church, the mob began to calm down. However, several hours later, the assailants returned in greater number and attacked the church with stones. The church building and the house of Nico Lomboan, the lead pastor of the church, were damaged as a result. No one was hurt in the incident.
According to Pastor Agus Haryanto, Chairman of the Inter-Church Cooperation of Sleman, GPDI El Shaddai was established in 1992. In 2011, the church of 100 worshipers tried to build a new and bigger building. In order to gain a place of worship permit, a church has to meet the main requirements of having at least 90 congregation members and gain the consent of 60 neighbors of different faiths. While the first requirement on membership was met, GPDI El Shaddai stumbled upon the second. “For years, the church had failed to obtain the local community’s support. Growth in building size is commonly associated with growth in congregation number. People held an unspoken suspicion and fear that the church was converting the locals into Christians,” Pastor Haryanto told World Watch Monitor. Despite the absence of a permit, construction went on until the building reached near completion.
In 2012, the local administration sealed the church due to local protests. A village hall was provided for the church as a temporary worship venue. After using the facility for a while, the congregation rented a hotel hall to conduct their Sunday Service.
The church attempted a couple of times to move back to their new premises. The first try was at Christmas 2013, followed by this second attempt on June 1. Both ended in mass protests. “The recent violence, however, was committed not by Pangukan villagers but by outsiders,” said Pastor Arief Arianto, leader of the Indonesian Bethel Church located just 50 m away from GPDI El Shaddai.
Responding to this incident, the Inter-Church Cooperation of Sleman planned to hold a meeting with local Muslim leaders to find a solution for the church and ease religious tensions in the region. “Sleman regency is home to 106 churches and sees good inter-religious relationships,” Pastor Haryanto said. The incident came as both surprising and alarming: Yogyakarta had been long known for its religious diversity and tolerance although another church in the province had been vandalized by Muslim fundamentalists in March.
Amidst the euphoria of the upcoming election, the church incidents have seized the attention of high profile politicians. The running mate of Jokowi, Jusuf Kalla, showed his concern by visiting Julius, victim of the prayer gathering raid, in the hospital. “Although Julius has personally forgiven the perpetrators, the case should still be prosecuted under the law. Otherwise, similar incidents would take place,” said Kalla. Opposing Presidential contender, Prabowo Subianto expressed the same concern. Despite his having considerable support from Islamic political parties, he regretted the violence. “There should be no threat of violence,” he promised. “If elected, we will try as hard as possible to enforce the laws and create harmony.”
Religious freedom in Indonesia has plummeted since the government of Suharto, the authoritarian president who had reigned for 32 years, fell apart in 1998. The new and more lenient democratic system has been abused by Muslim fundamentalist groups to oppress religious minorities, including believers of Islamic sect Ahmadiyya and Christians. The latter make up roughly 10% of the population. “From 2004 to 2010, at least 2,442 churches were attacked or closed down,” says Victor Silaen who lectures in International Relations at Pelita Harapan University.
80% of its reported incidents took place in Java, says 2014 Human Rights Watch.
On Java, religious attacks are further concentrated in West Java province. Among the most volatile areas in this province is Cianjur, the regency where seven churches were shut down between December 2013 and January 2014. In their appeal to the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) on June 2, the Cianjur Churches’ Union claimed that the local administration had forcibly closed the churches, despite some of them operating legally since 1977. They also submitted their report on past intimidations from various extremist groups. “We feel our right to religious freedom has been severely limited because the seven congregations no longer have places to worship,” said Oferlin Hia, a spokesman and pastor of one of the affected churches, as quoted by the Jakarta Post.
The ongoing religious restrictions and violence have put Indonesia at 47th in the World Watch List 2014, which ranks the 50 countries where Christians are most oppressed for their faith.