Indonesia Mulls Law That Would Ban Conversion, Restrict Church Building

Patrick Goodenough | Pacific Rim Bureau Chief | Friday, March 5, 2004

Indonesia Mulls Law That Would Ban Conversion, Restrict Church Building

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - A draft religion law under consideration in Indonesia has prompted concerns from some activists and observers who worry how it may affect the country's often beleaguered Christian minority.

Although the title of the Religious Tolerance Bill sounds innocuous, the proposed provisions will restrict the building of new churches and effectively prohibit Muslims from converting to other faiths.

Critics see it as part of a wider campaign by fundamentalists to prod the world's largest Muslim country towards becoming a full-fledged Islamic state, under shari'a law.

Early this week, thousands of radicals held demonstrations in Jakarta and Indonesia's second city, Surabaya, demanding the imposition of shari'a.

Some speakers were quoted as calling on voters only to back candidates in next month's parliamentary election who support shari'a.

Currently, only one part of the sprawling archipelago of 210 million people, Aceh province, has instituted Islamic law, and only partially. The vast majority of Indonesian Muslims are described as moderate.

Nonetheless, Indonesian Christians, particularly those in Sulawesi and Maluku, have long experienced violence at the hands of marginal extremist groups.

Thousands died in Muslim-Christian conflict in those two provinces from 1999 onwards. Peace accords were eventually signed in both, but sporadic violence erupts, notably in Sulawesi late last year.

During the early weeks of this year, a number of homemade bombs were found in Central Sulawesi, raising new concerns.

Christian campaigners also report problems elsewhere.

Recent months have seen a number of churches attacked or forced to close under threat of violence in the capital, Jakarta, and various parts of the country, according to the Barnabas Fund, a UK-based Christian organization working among Christians minorities.

In some cases, Muslims have taken advantage of a document issued by the government in 2002, known as the Letter of Decision No. 137, which provides for the closure of churches in Jakarta if residents living nearby object to their location or existence.

Barnabas Fund said extremists were goading Muslims to exploit the ruling, and cause difficulties for local churches.

At least four churches in the city were forced to shut in late 2003, and another seven suffered the same fate in Banten province, west of Jakarta, it said.

There had also been reports of mob intimidation, death threats and vandalism.

'Profoundly detrimental effect'

Even as such incidents occur, Christians may in the future face deeper problems, as a result of legislative attempts to limit their activities.

According to the State Department's report on global human rights for 2003, released last week, conversions between faiths in Indonesia are currently allowed under the country's Human Rights Law.

The report said, however, that "converts to minority religions sometimes felt reluctant to publicize their conversions because they feared discrimination."

But the situation could become significantly more difficult in the future. In its current form, the Religious Tolerance Bill will effectively prevent Christian evangelism and deny people the right to embrace another faith, as one article says religious rituals will be restricted to members of that religion.

"This legislation may well have a profoundly detrimental affect on the Indonesian church if it is passed," the Barnabas Fund said Wednesday.

"The Religious Tolerance Bill is the latest example of Islamic hardliners increasingly making use of legislation to guide Indonesia towards becoming an Islamic state that will codify repression of religious minorities," it said.

Islam expert and author Robert Spencer, adjunct fellow with the Free Congress Foundation, said it was interesting that the proposed legislation was named the Religious Tolerance Bill.

"It is useful to bear in mind that when many Muslims speak of Islam as a tolerant faith, they mean the tolerance that Muslim masters had for the dhimmi Christians and Jews: the tolerance of a superior for an inferior," Spencer wrote on an online service he publishes, Dhimmi Watch.

"Dhimmi" refers to the status given to Christians, Jews and under non-Muslim minorities living in Islamic societies who surrendered by a treaty (dhimma) to Muslim domination.

Spencer said the draft Indonesian law revived some age-old provisions in Islamic law for the treatment of dhimmi peoples.

"Restrictions on building new churches or repairing old ones are among the oldest and most consistently applied provisions of dhimmi law in Islamic history."

On the conversion issue, he noted that conversion from Islam was a capital offense under traditional Islamic law.

In a recent article on the draft law, an Indonesian think tank called the Indonesian Institute argued that the basis of religious tolerance was not laws and regulations, but religious freedom.

"Without allowing religious freedom to flourish, religious tolerance is an illusion and any effort to build a better Indonesia will forever be unsuccessful," it said.

Send a Letter to the Editor about this article.