Indonesia Less Tolerant of Minorities, Say Faith Leaders

Indonesia is becoming more intolerant of religious minority, declared both a Catholic priest and a moderate Muslim leader on Wednesday.

In general, the overwhelmingly Muslim country of Indonesia is considered as tolerant of Christians and other religious minorities. But reports show an increase in church closures throughout the archipelago. More than 100 churches have been closed in Indonesia by attacks from radical Muslim groups or by local governments, according to Compass Direct News.

Also in recent months, there have been attacks on mosques and buildings belonging to the Muslim sect Ahmadiyya, which many Muslims deem "heretical," as reported by Reuters.

"This (religious tolerance) is a situation you don't have in many other countries with Muslim majorities, but tolerance is now under attack," said Catholic priest Franz Magnis, a German-born Jesuit priest and long-term resident, according to Reuters.

"For Christians, attacks against churches, very often against churches which did not have the full set of permits, began to increase enormously since 1990," he noted.

The priest complained that police often fail to protect religious minorities from the attacks of radial groups.

"In general, religious freedom is still a fact, but it is also a fact that our state is a weak state and doesn't dare to enforce the law if state people think that it is against religious feelings of the majority," he noted.

Specifically, Magnis said the government failed to take strong action against militants accused for a series of bomb attacks, including blasts at churches in 2000 that killed 19 people. But officials were fast to act when the militant group Jemaah Islamiah attacked nightclubs in Bali in 2002.

"To my great astonishment within six weeks (of the Bali bomb) they caught the terrorists," Magnis said.

"But of the 30 bombs that exploded on Christmas night in the year 2000 they caught nobody except a few people when the bomb exploded before it was brought there," he added.

Zuhairi Misrawi, executive director of the Moderate Muslim Society, said moderate Muslims are concerned about the increase of radical groups and need to respond to protect the rights of minorities.

"We are afraid that in the future the radical groups will ban the activities of Christians," he said.

The country has experienced much sectarian violence over the years with at least 1,000 people dying due to Muslim-Christian violence from 1998 to 2001 in Central Sulawesi province, where there is roughly equal numbers of both communities.

High profile cases of Christian persecution in Indonesia include the 2005 arrests of three Christian Sunday school teachers who were accused of attempting to convert Muslim children. The Muslim parents had reportedly given full consent for their children to join Christian students in singing Christian songs, playing games and hearing Bible stories, but the court nevertheless sentenced the women to three years in prison. The women served two years and were released early for good behavior last June.

Also in 2005, Islamic militants on motorcycles beheaded three Christian schoolgirls who were on their way to school. The girls' heads were dumped in villages nearby and a handwritten note by the bodies warned of more killings in revenge for sectarian violence on Sulawesi Island.

Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim country with about 85 percent of its 220 million people saying they are followers of Islam. Christians make up only about 8.7 percent of the population, according to the CIA World Factbook.