Three churches in Jambi were recently forced to close by the municipality due primarily to pressure from Islamic organizations, including the local branches of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) and the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), as well as the Jambi Interfaith Communication Forum (FKUB).
The official reason for the closures of the Indonesian Huria Christian Church (HKI), Indonesian Methodist Church (GMI) and the Assemblies of God Church (GSJA) cited a permit for public worship. City authorities had apparently taken into account that the churches had been established for more than 10 years and that they had already applied for the permit, although no permit had been granted to date.
This situation calls to mind the worsening situation for the Christian community in Indonesia. According to the Indonesian Communion of Churches (PGI), more than 1,000 churches have been closed in the last 20 years.
My own data shows that under the administrations of Soeharto and BJ Habibie, 456 churches were forcibly closed and 156 others were vandalized. During the administrations of Abdurrahman Wahid and Megawati Soekarnoputri, at least 232 churches were closed and 92 others vandalized, while up to 2010 under the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono administration, at least 2,442 churches were attacked.
According to the Wahid Foundations national survey released in July 2016, almost 60 percent of adult Muslims in Indonesia resented non-Muslims, including ethnic Chinese, and also said they felt the lingering threat of communism — which has been associated with non-Muslim Chinese-Indonesians since the political upheaval of the 1960s that was partly blamed on China.
Could it be worse?
As a Muslim raised in the Sunni tradition, I experienced anti-Christian hostility as a part of Muslim teachings. From early on, I was raised to believe that no other religion was superior to ours. In the absence of visible Jews — who our teachings said we should hate above all others — the group that earned our greatest resentment was the Christians.
As Muslims, we considered Christianity a betrayal of faith and that Christians had to be “saved” by forcing them to convert to Islam. According to this line of thinking, Christians had betrayed the oneness of God, because we were taught that they were polytheists through imagining God as comprising three entities.
According to our classic teachings, Islam is the final successor to the earlier Abrahamic religions of Judaism and Christianity, and anyone rejecting this belief was categorized as an infidel (kufr).
The Quran contains over 160 verses that mention jihad, which is largely understood as a command to fight non-Muslims that — according to many classical Islamic jurists and Quranic Sunni scholars such as Ibn Hazm and Ibn Kathir — therefore abrogated the 124 verses that call for tolerance, compassion and peace.
In addition, hostility towards Christianity, unfortunately, is literally deemed “sacred” in the Holy Quran. For instance, Surah al Baqarah verse 120 is always cited, wrongly, as justification that Christians will not rest from proselytizing Muslims; whereas this verse actually speaks about a very specific moment when the Jews in Medina deplored the Prophet Muhammad's decision to no longer pray (qibla) in the direction of Jerusalem, according to the scholar al-Wahidi in Asbab al-Nuzul (Contexts and occasions of the revelations of the Quran). In early Islam, as Tabari recorded in Tarikh Rusul wal Muluk (History of prophets and kings), the prophets and early Muslims all used to pray towards Jerusalem.
Sadly, incorrect teachings regarding these verses have been used in the Islamic-Christian conflict of Indonesias political and religious history. From Mujibburrahmans published dissertation, Feeling Threatened: Muslim-Christian Relations in Indonesia's New Order (2006), we learn that some Islamic leaders were deeply hurt by mass conversions to Christianity following the witch-hunt against suspected communists in 1965-66. According to J.S. Aritonang and Karel Stennbrink in A History of Christianity in Indonesia, "More than a million persons were willingly baptized as Catholics, as well as Protestants, in Indonesia” at the time.
For many Islamic leaders, clerics and even scholars, such experiences seemed to justify what they understood from the Quran, that Christians did and would try to convert as many Muslims as possible. This understanding, then, was dogmatically turned into a negative stereotype against all Christians and was widely spread through the Islamic education system. Most Sunni Muslims in Indonesia follow the Shafi'i school (madzhab), known to contain the strictest paradigm on supposed infidels compared to other schools.
So whats next?
I believe religious desegregation in society is the key to solving Indonesias faith-related problems, based on my own experience dealing with the intolerant and prejudiced views many young Muslims hold toward Christianity.
With the Gus Dur Network (Jaringan GUSDURian), named after the late NU leader and former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid, I have conducted many interfaith youth forums, especially in West and East Java, challenging dozens of young Muslims to meet Christians, mostly in churches. From there, I urge them to confront their fear of churches, the cross and Christianity itself, as well as to dismantle their prejudices on Christianization. This has worked so far, and I often ask them to write down their personal experiences and share them on social media, so that other people can learn from them.
Desegregation, again, should be the strategy that the national education system integrates into its curriculum, starting from elementary schools. As such, the administration of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo should immediately order the Religious Affairs Ministry and the Education and Culture Ministry to reconstruct any Islamic teachings that are not in accordance with the interfaith spirit or Indonesia's diversity.
The two ministries should prioritize at least two policies: the reinterpretation of any intolerant Islamic teachings and mandating schools, at any level, to facilitate interfaith visits, including diverse places of worship.
Further, Jokowi and all religious leaders should declare a moratorium on the closure of any places of worship, particularly churches, and make serious efforts in implementing it, whatever it takes. Prior to such measures, Jokowi must persuade at least the two largest moderate Islamic organizations, the NU and Muhammadiyah, which have significant roles in the MUI.
With his fairly high ratings, if Jokowi continues to promote tolerant Islam with running mate Ma'ruf Amin at his side, he should not worry about losing the “Islamic vote” in the next presidential election.(*)
* first published in The Jakarta Post
**The writer is obtaining a masters in Islamic family law at Hasyim Asy'ari University in Tebuireng, Jombang, East Java, and an active member of the Gus DurNetwork (Jaringan GUSDURian) community organization.