The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Monday, July 26, 2010


(Above: Victoria University's gamelan orchestra performing at St Andrew's on the Terrace in Wellington NZ before an audience including many local Muslims.)

Easter marked our first year at St Andrew’s since shifting from an Anglican parish where we’d worshipped since arriving in Wellington in 2007.

Erlinawati and I come from Indonesia where religion is heavy duty. The standard media tag is ‘the world’s most populous Muslim nation.’ That claim rests on statistics showing almost 88 per cent adhere to Islam.

Every Indonesian has to follow one of the government’s six approved religions – Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholicism and ‘Christian’, meaning Protestantism.
During his term as president between 1999 and 2001 the late Abdurrahman Wahid, better known as Gus Dur, allowed Confucianism to be recognised.

The Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but not freedom from religion.

Every citizen’s religion is stamped on her or his compulsory ID card. Islam is the default. So the millions who follow Kebatinan, the original religion of Java, or any other unrecognised faith – or no faith – get listed as Muslims.

The Minister for Religious Affairs recently opposed a law revision because this “could spark unlimited freedom of religion.”

Protestants and Catholics form ten per cent. That’s 24 million – more than the population of Australia.

At last count there were 80 plus Protestant denominations, many formed when congregations split over theological interpretations and personality clashes – something not exclusive to Indonesia.

Richard Daulay, head of the Communion of Churches, jokes of a liner rescuing a shipwrecked Indonesian. As the ship steams away the captain asks the lone castaway about the three buildings on his island.

The man replies: “The first was my house, the second my church.”

“And the third?” asks the captain.

The Protestant responds with contempt: “That’s the church I used to belong to.”

Churches are always packed in Indonesia and only early birds get a perch near a window, door or air conditioner, necessary because services can be marathons. At Easter and Christmas, marquees in carparks and streets accommodate overflow crowds following services on closed circuit TV.

The heartland of Indonesian Protestantism is North Sulawesi, Erlinawati’s homeland. When Dutch colonialists arrived in the 17th century with guns and Bibles the Minahasa people of this remote area converted en masse.
Their rewards were higher education opportunities, jobs in the public service and places in the army where they were used to put down Muslim rebellions in Java. Not a good start for inter-faith relationships.

The Catholics carved off the Eastern islands but Protestants can be found in most regions, often funding ostentatious palaces of worship.

Foremost is Bethany with the slogan ‘successful families’. Its Surabaya church is like an H G Wells’ flying saucer that’s landed among the slums. It can seat 20,000 and has five-star fittings and d├ęcor.

These and other factors have led to a common view that Protestants are rich and mainly ethnic Chinese, keen to ‘Christianise’ poor Muslims. This became a serious charge after the 2004 tsunami clean up in Aceh where some US aid agencies were allegedly proselytising.

Early this century church burnings in Java and open warfare between Christians and Muslims in the Moluccas stoked tensions nationwide. Although the big conflagrations have died down, the embers of hate still glow, particularly in West Java and Sumatra where churches have been torched this year.

The targets aren’t always Christians. Muslim mobs have razed mosques and compounds belonging to Ahmadiah, a sect that claims other prophets followed Muhammad.

By NZ standards most church services are sterile events where the God of joy is sadly absent. Puritanism is widespread and the hunt for sinners can be spirited.

Fundamentalism is not exclusive to Islam. Evangelists have been blamed for inter-faith strife by shouting hallelujahs in crowded Muslim neighbourhoods. Others have used religious differences as excuses to settle ethnic, political and business feuds.

Dr Paul Tahalele, chair of the Indonesian Christian Communication Forum, argues that Christian survival in Indonesia means taking a low profile, wearing plain clothes on Sundays, not driving Mercedes to church and doing welfare work among the poor without banging the Bible.

The Catholics have been better at this than the Protestants, running hospitals and schools attracting large numbers of middle-class Muslim students seeking high quality education with discipline.

In the East Java town of Malang where we retain a home, a progressive Muslim teacher called Yusman Roy, an Indonesian version of John Wycliffe, was jailed for two years for reading the Koran in Indonesian.

Roy reasoned few in his congregation understood Arabic and the crowds agreed. But his popularity attracted truckloads of fundamentalists from afar claiming he was a blasphemer.

Still in prison in the same city are 40 members of a Christian student group that videotaped a training session. This included abusing the Koran. Police saw the DVD. Mainstream Christian leaders gave fulsome public apologies and riots were averted.

There are many parallels with the Reformation making Indonesia an exciting place for a journalist. Leading the movement is the Jaringan Islam Liberal, (Liberal Islamic Network) a small group of Jakarta-based intellectuals pushing uphill against the mighty weight of the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (Indonesian Islamic Scholars).

This conservative group is opposed to pluralism. It’s also the body seeking to control halal meat imports from NZ.

There’s nothing half-hearted about faith in Indonesia. Military dictator Soeharto kept a tight rein on all religions for 32 years with intelligence agents vetting sermons. Public discussions of issues involving race, religion and ethnicity were banned.

Following the strongman’s fall in 1998 the leash has been off and fundamentalists have been getting a free run. Their targets are ‘neo-liberals’, meaning anyone who thinks differently. There’s been a welding of radical Islam with nationalism.

The death of Gus Dur last December deprived Indonesians of an outstanding Islamic scholar and democrat, a champion of tolerance by word and deed – and an exceptionally funny and decent man.

So far no one of his intellect and standing has filled the gap, leading many Christians to fear a resurgence of persecution. The growth of Sharia law, financially backed by Saudi oil money is an issue, though so far mainly impacting on moderate Muslims.

The propensity for mob violence simmers just below the surface, threatening the nation’s claim to be the custodian of moderate Islam.

(First published in St Andrew's on the Terrace News, July 2010)

1 comment:

Ele Azhar P. said...

An insightful post pertaining to faith in Indonesia! :)