Soon after the 9/11 attacks, my employers were looking for the next place where Islamic militants were hiding out and I proposed a trip to Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country -- where there was a potential massacre awaiting Christians in one of its eastern provinces. The plane tickets were all bought and plans were for me and a photographer to fly to Palu, a city in central Sulawesi, an island shaped like something between a swastika and a pinwheel.
At the last minute, a top editor cancelled the trip because he was afraid that if we were kidnapped, the newspaper didn’t have the means to rescue us. Being that journalists were getting killed in Afghanistan, it was a very real fear. But I was terribly disappointed not to go.
North Sulawesi, it turns out, is quite Protestant and reputed to have a church every 100 meters. But central Sulawesi was much more Muslim, so we planned to drive to Poso, then south to Tentena, a Christian village that was in some danger of being wiped out by Islamists. This CNN article tells of how some 7,000 Muslim guerillas were planning war on about 60,000 Christian villagers. A few years later, guerillas were using machetes to chop off the heads of young Christian girls.
The reason for this long introduction is that NPR recently did a piece on the utter lack of religious liberty for Christians in Indonesia, as illustrated by a small church outside of Jakarta that the local Muslims will not allow to open. A sample:
The city of Bogor, on the outskirts of greater Jakarta, is a conservative Muslim area with a strong Christian minority. To open a church here, Christian groups must meet a lot of requirements, including getting permission from Muslim authorities.
Starting in 2003, the Taman Yasmin Indonesia Christian Church, also known as the GKI Yasmin Church, got all the necessary legal permits. But vocal Muslim citizens opposed construction of the church and pressured the local government to cancel the permits.
The local government acquiesced to the demands. But the church group went to court, and won. On an appeal, they won again. Finally, the case went all the way to Indonesia's Supreme Court — where the church group won a third time, in 2010. But to this day, the congregation can't worship there…
Why do I bring this up? Because this NPR report contradicts the widespread media fantasy of Indonesia as this happy inter-religious paradise. This recent New York Times article –- which attributes news of interfaith fights to ‘international news reports’ -- is a case in point. Remember, former President Barack Obama showed up there last summer in Indonesia to tout the interfaith harmony there.
How he could wax eloquent about this with the Jakarta’s Christian governor recently jailed over blasphemy-against-Islam charges is beyond me. Obama doesn’t seem to realize that the Indonesia of his childhood no longer exists.
A Jakarta Globe piece is a mixed bag, as it says things aren’t as bad as they could be while adding they are a tad grim for Ahmadiyah Muslims (which are considered a sect by mainline Muslims) and of course Christians who had nine churches destroyed by Muslims in 2015 in Aceh, the only province that enforces sharia law. .
Fortunately, the NPR report alludes to false media representations of the country.
Indonesia, with its mix of Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and Christian citizens, has long had a reputation as a country that embraces religious diversity. Andreas Harsono, the Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch, sees things differently.
"This is just a statement coming from people like Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, all Western leaders who want to praise Indonesia for various reasons -- sometimes justified, sometimes just for lip service," he says.
In fact, Harsono says, the Bogor church represents an alarming example of Indonesia's growing intolerance.
With all due respect to Obama, other media need to wake up when it comes to Indonesia’s slide toward radical Islam before the place becomes the Pakistan of the South Pacific. In fact, The Hindu has written about the "Pakistanisation of Indonesia." Pakistan has been rated fourth worst country in the world in terms of persecution of Christians. In terms of numbers of Christians killed, it’s the world’s worst.
Make sure you listen to the audio version of the NPR story. I’m sorry I didn’t get to Tentena and Sulawesi back in 2001. May I get there before I die, and may other reporters who want to see what’s really happening in Indonesia.