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Religious tensions tarnish Indonesia's moderate image

Conversions spark clashes between Muslims and Christians.

Indonesian Christians
Indonesian Christian women raise their hands during a protest against attacks on churches in Jakarta on Aug. 15, 2010. (Bay Ismoyo/AFP/Getty Images)

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Farah Diena is taking catechism, the religious courses that will prepare her for baptism.

The 20-year-old English teacher decided to convert from Islam to Catholicism two years ago, but as she prepared to fully commit, she also had to come to terms with the ostracism she would face from Indonesia’s Muslim majority.

Indonesia is often recognized for having more Muslims than any other country. Yet most are moderate and embrace the nation’s secular constitution, a fact that has helped propel Indonesia onto the world stage at a time when the United States and other Western allies are cultivating stronger relationships with moderate Muslim nations it sees as integral in their ongoing battle against Islamic terrorism.

But recent tensions between Indonesia's Islamic hardliners and Christian groups are increasingly threatening Indonesia’s moderate reputation. The hardliners claim that these groups are trying to Christianize Muslims, and in June they called for the formation of militias to protect the faithful from conversion.

They have also stoned and torched churches, sealed several places of worship and attacked groups whose prayers they say are causing a disturbance. On Aug. 8, a stick-wielding mob chased and beat 20 members of the Batak Christian Protestant Church, who they say do not have proper government permits to worship.

The incident was one among a rising number where violence has been used to suppress religious minority activities, and it appears to signal growing religious intolerance in a nation eager to trumpet its pluralist credentials to the international community.

Bonar Tigor Naipospos, deputy chairman of the Setara Institute, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that works to promote peace and democracy, said religious revivals led by Christian evangelicals make Muslim hardliners suspicious.

“They fear they will lose their influence, their followers,” he said.

Allegations that the Mahanaim Foundation, a Christian charity, conducted a mass baptism in June just outside Jakarta set off weeks of protests against other Christian groups.

Mahanaim denied the allegation, but Murhali Barda, the local leader of the Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI, a group known for conducting vigilante raids against bars and attacking minority religious sects, said he had proof.

During an interview he produced a picture of a woman having water poured over her head. He said the Christian evangelicals had persuaded Muslims to join a community event, where they later conducted a mass baptism.

Franz Magnis-Suseno, a Jesuit priest and philosophy professor, does not deny that certain evangelical groups do proselytize. But he said most of the missionary activities are directed toward Protestants, noting that there has been no significant change in the number of the country’s Christians.

Diena dismissed the whole controversy. She thinks the church will eventually recover from the uproar.

“And as for the FPI … I just laugh at them,” she said.

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Friends call Diena by her last name, pronounced Dina, which she said comes from the Arabic word for religion — Din. She is a lover of philosophy and historic literature, but graphic novels are her guilty pleasure.

Her interest in philosophy drew her to the Dnyarkara School of Philosophy, an institute run by Jesuits. But it was a priest named Father Toto who ultimately triggered her entry into the Catholic religion.

Diena said she was in denial about the difficulties she was having in life. At the age of 16 she tried to commit suicide by drinking poison. Two years later a botched abortion put her in hospital for several days. So she started taking meditation classes with Father Toto.

“They made me think about myself, and the things I was not letting go,” she said, dragging on the end of her fifth Marlboro Menthol in less than an hour.