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Largest Muslim population nation names evangelical Christian as head of police

Indonesia
Members of the clergy conduct Easter mass in an empty church and streamed online as part of social distancing measures amidst the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic in Jakarta on April 12, 2020. |

Indonesia has named an evangelical Christian as the new national police chief, marking the first time in nearly 50 years that a member of the religious minority has held the post in the Muslim-majority nation.

According to UCA News, Commissioner General Listyo Sigit Prabowo, 52, was sworn in on Jan. 27 as police chief, succeeding Gen. Idham Azis who retired on Feb.1. A Protestant, Listyo is the first Christian to hold the post in nearly 50 years and only the third since Indonesia declared independence in August 1945.

Despite opposition from Islamic groups, Listyo was the only candidate unanimously approved by the People's Representative Council, Indonesia’s lower house of parliament. Described as a “close ally” of Indonesian President Joko Widodo, Listyo said that in his new role, he would try to “promote diversity” and would step up efforts to address issues like intolerance and radicalism.

He also vowed to support religious freedom and work “to create a trustworthy and transparent police, to be the protector of all citizens of the nation."

“The various experiences of the nation and the state so far will certainly be valuable lessons for all of us in the effort to continue police reform,” he said, according to Evangelical Focus.

The national police chief also emphasized that under his leadership, the police “will continue to carry out law enforcement efforts to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic and ensure public safety.”

In February, Listyo called for greater discretion when enforcing the country's controversial internet law, which regulates online activity including defamation and hate speech, Reuters reports

Listyo’s appointment comes after a Muhyiddin Junaidi, a leading figure in the Indonesian Ulema Council, the country’s top Islamic clerical body, stated that the new police chief must be Muslim.

“Even though Indonesia is a secular country, it would not be appropriate if the leader of the police had a non-Muslim background. It was natural for leaders of any country to have the same religion as that of the majority of the population,” he said.

His appointment was applauded by Communion of Churches in Indonesia (CCI/PGI), which said “Prabowo's religion did not play a role, what matters is his past achievements and successes, as well as his vision for the future of Indonesia as a democratic, free, but orderly country.”

“His appointment shows that every citizen has the same rights to reach a position of leadership," they added.

Father Paulus Christian Siswantoko, executive secretary of the Indonesian bishops' Commission for the Laity, said that by appointing a new chief from a religious minority, Widodo demonstrated that any Indonesian citizen has an equal right to become a leader.

"This is an affirmation that this nation chooses leaders not based on religion, not based on a minority or majority, but based on achievement, track record and vision," he told UCA News.

He also expressed hope Listyo would enforce the law fairly for all people without discrimination, adding: "The impression that the law is blunt upward and sharp downward must change.”

Home to the world’s largest Muslim population, Indonesia ranks as the 47th worst country for Christian persecution on Open Doors USA’s 2021 World Watch List. 

The human rights group reports that the situation for Christians in the Southeast Asian country has deteriorated in recent years because the Indonesian society has taken on “a more conservative Islamic character.” 

In 2017, Indonesian Muslims succeeded in pressuring the country’s judiciary into convicting former Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama — a Chinese Indonesian Christian also known as Ahok — for blasphemy against Islam. 

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has advised the U.S. State Department to list Indonesia on its “special watch list” of countries that engage in or tolerate severe religious freedom violations. 

In its 2020 annual report, USCIRF notes that Indonesia's religious freedom conditions are trending negatively since many religious minorities are prosecuted under blasphemy laws, and intolerant hardline groups continue to threaten religious minority houses of worship. 

“Reports from local nongovernmental organizations indicated that the provinces of West Java, Jakarta, and East Java had the highest number of incidents of religious intolerance — including discrimination, hate speech, acts of violence, and rejections of permits to build houses of worship for minority religious communities,” the annual report states. 

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