Religious organizations, human rights groups, and the U.S. State Department are condemning the “troubling” decision by an Indonesian court to sentence those responsible for the brutal killings of members of a minority religious group to no more than six months in prison, saying the lenient sentences will only incite further violence against such groups, including Christians.
Last Thursday, 12 men, all Sunni Muslims, were sentenced to a maximum of six months in prison for their roles in the Februrary attack on about 20 members of the Ahmadiyah minority Muslim sect in Cikeusik village in western Java.
The violent attack, reportedly carried about by more than 1,000 Islamist militants, left three people dead and several others injured.
The World Evangelical Association (WEA) and Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) have expressed fear that the light sentences will only serve as an encouragement for extremists to continue their persecution of Christians.
In addition to facing attacks from Muslim extremists, churches in Indonesia are also being targeted by local officials, who have inexplicably ordered that their worship facilities be shut down.
Members of a Protestant church in the city of Bogor have had to hold outdoor services for the past few months after the city’s mayor ordered officials to close their church, according to the WEA.
The congregation’s numbers appear to be dwindling, as members fear growing aggression from large groups that gather every Sunday to protest the church meetings, according to the WEA.
The common complaint among evangelical associations and human rights groups is police and government officials’ unwillingness to crack down on extremists carrying out the attacks even thought the democratic country's laws support religious freedom.
“Threats to Christians in Bogor must be taken seriously, and the refusal of local authorities to abide by Supreme Court rulings regarding church licensing further undermines the rule of law in Indonesia,” CSW’s Advocacy Director Andrew Johnston said in a statement.
The U.S. State Department also criticized the lenient punishment issued last week.
“This is a very troubling and disappointing verdict, and shows that Indonesia continues to struggle with extremism and intolerance in its midst,” said Leonard Leo, Chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
The Human Rights Watch (HRW) called the court’s decision a “setback for religious freedom in Indonesia.” HRW said in a statement that police officials as well as prosecutors failed to do their jobs.
“Indonesian authorities should be making all-out efforts to bring to justice those who kill people because of their religious beliefs,” said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“The Cikeusik trial sends the chilling message that attacks on minorities like the Ahmadiyah will be treated lightly by the legal system.”
As Muslims worldwide begin observing the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, which runs from August 1-30, there are concerns that extremists in Indonesia will take the opportunity to step up attacks against minority religious groups.
Firdaus Mubarik, spokesman for the Indonesian Ahmadiyah Congregation (JAI), told the Jakarta Post that Ramadan is often used as an excuse by extremists to “purge” their locales of anything deemed unholy, including religious minorities.
Open Doors International, which combats persecution against Christians around the world, has called on believers living in “Islamic dominated countries” to use the month of Ramadan to pray for God to use them to draw their neighbors to Christ.