In Indonesia, religious peace is at risk, says leader


Indonesia has seen a sharp increase in religious violence over recent years, with radical Muslim groups targeting both Christians and members of the minority Ahmadiyah community. But at an ecumenical seminar in Germany, the chair of the Communion of Churches in Indonesia (CCI) explained that the country's religious leaders have a common aim in promoting tolerance and harmony.

“Leaders of the Christian community, together with other religious leaders (especially Muslims), have always made an effort to maintain healthy cooperative relationships,” the Rev. Andreas Yewangoe said at Ruhr University, Bochum on 8 November. “The nation's problems are seen as problems that we must face together.” 

Religious plurality has been enshrined in the Indonesian constitution under the national ideal of “unity through diversity” since independence from colonial rule in 1945. There are six officially recognized religions: Islam, Protestant Christianity, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism, as well many followers of traditional indigenous beliefs.

Drawing on the experiences of his own religiously mixed family and describing a rich tradition of interfaith festivals, Yewangoe painted a compelling picture of Indonesia's “authentic harmony.” 

But all that is at risk. According to the Indonesian Committee on Religion and Peace, there have been more than 20 attacks on churches this year, and several have been forced to close. In February, a mob attack on an Ahmadiyah mosque in the Banten province of Java left three people dead. The attack led to 12 convictions, but those sentenced received only six months in jail. 

The Ahmadiyah consider themselves Muslim but differ from mainstream Islam in believing that Muhammad was not the final prophet. “As churches in Indonesia, we do not interfere in internal matters of Islamic teaching but we do interfere when people are denied their right to worship,” Yewangoe said in an interview. “Freedom of worship is in the constitution, which is why we advocate the rights of the Ahmadiyah.” 

On a separate trip to Germany in September, Yewangoe met with lawmakers in Berlin to discuss the ongoing dispute over the Yasmin Church in west Java, which has been closed since 2008 due to pressure from radical Islamists. The local mayor has ignored a ruling by the Supreme Court of Indonesia that the church should be allowed to reopen. Yewangoe sees this a test case for the Indonesian constitution, which he insists that the majority Indonesians of all faiths want to see upheld. 

“The current problem we face in Indonesia is not Christian versus Islam but those who want to support the common problem of nation-building versus those who wish to tear it apart,” Yewangoe said in his lecture. 

The event in Bochum marks the start of a three-week tour of Germany by Yewangoe organized by the United Evangelical Mission. Yewangoe hopes to raise awareness of issues affecting his own country and to remind Germans of the importance of interfaith harmony at home. 

“I am happy to visit the German churches because the interfaith relationships in Germany have also become more important,” he said. “In Germany there are many Muslims now. The Muslim people are now your neighbors.”

Ruby Russell

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