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Religious tensions tarnish Indonesia's moderate image

Conversions spark clashes between Muslims and Christians.

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.”