Religious tensions tarnish Indonesia's moderate image

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.

Diena’s parents split when she was young, and she did not meet her biological father until she was 10. Her family is a perfect microcosm of Indonesian society — her stepfather a former Christian from the Batak ethic group who converted when he married her mother, a Javanese Muslim. Her father is an Arab from Yemen.

Unlike many Christians in this predominantly Muslim nation, Diena is not afraid to talk about her conversion — though she admits she has not yet told her family. She plans to tell her mother, who she expects will be disappointed.

Her father, on the other hand, will completely reject her conversion, and she says telling him is not worth the trouble.

“I pulled up the courage to stop wearing the veil when I see his family. And they made jokes, made me feel like I didn’t fit in,” she said.

Yoshua Pitoy, a pastor with the Christian Brotherhood Church, said he lives and works in harmony with Muslims. But he is reluctant to reveal the identities of those who have recently joined his congregation. Some have not told their families because they fear for their lives, he said.

The Indonesian state operates according to the principles of Pancasila, which includes respect for democracy and the belief in one god. It also sanctions only six official religions — Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholicism, Protestantism and Confucianism.

A 1978 government regulation forbids attempts to convert people who already have a religion. But both Christians and Muslims have mostly ignored the regulation. Anecdotally, people say conversions happen often — seldom as a result of propagation, but because of marriage or personal preference.

Many families in Indonesia have multi-religious backgrounds, a side effect of migration that has led to mixed marriages and intermingled communities.

In the 12 years since Indonesia began democratizing, the space to practice one’s religion has widened. And although data on the number of conversions is hard to find, Bonar said it goes both ways.

The problem is the double standard. Christians who convert to Islam are far more open about their switch since they don’t face persecution, he said. Muslims who become Christians, however, are often subject to threats of violence from their families and the community.

Most of the people in Diena’s catechism class are converting because of marriage, or because they are elderly and are hoping to reconnect with their faith. And then, there is Diena.

“I see religion as a way to meet God,” she said. “People choose their own way, and I chose mine.”