05/19/2011, 00.00
INDONESIA

Cirebon: Muslim extremists disrupt Christian services as police looks on

Mathias Hariyadi
Christians celebrate traditional post-Easter services. Human rights activist slams police inaction against “hostile” acts. He criticises the government for protecting religious freedom in words only. The city of Cirebon loses its “peaceful” image, as it becomes a centre of fundamentalism.
Jakarta (AsiaNews) – Islamic extremist groups disrupted two post-Easter services in Cirebon, a city on the border of West and Central Java, as police failed to stop the violence, this according to  Hendardi, chairman of the Setara Institute, an NGO fighting for human rights and religious freedom in Indonesia. The activist slammed police for its “powerlessness” vis-à-vis “hostile” acts perpetrated by radical movements, which interrupted religious services.

In Indonesia, Catholics and Protestants traditionally organise celebrations in connection with Easter, including activities weeks after the main feast day. The goal is to boost the faith and strengthen friendship within the community. This is done by reciting the rosary, organising games for children (including the Easter egg), and performing other social activities.

A group of 20 extremists, led by Andy Mulya, stormed on Tuesday the Gratia Palace and Apita Hotel, in Cirebon, where two groups, one Catholic and another Protestant, were holding services, the Setara chairman said.

Participants resisted the invasion, saying they had the right permits from the authorities. However, police inaction allowed members of the Anti-Proselytising and Unlawful Teachings group (GAPAS) to stop the services. Under Indonesian law, police must authorise and be present at such “public” events.

Setara archives show that GAPAS has been a major threat to inter-confessional harmony. It has attacked Christians in the past as well as members of the Ahmadi sect.

Often, complaints filed with public officials and the police fall on deaf years. Claims by the central government and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono that they are fighting extremism appear empty promises. 

In Indonesia, police collusion and inaction by political leaders undermine religious freedom. For Hendardi, the authorities should “stop making good promises” and, in a direct reference to the president, “take action” instead.

In addition to the latest episodes of abuse, extremists have also organised street demonstration in recent months against freedom of worship for Christians as well as the construction of Christian places of worship.

Cirebon, which lies along the border of West and Central Java, 350 km east of Jakarta, is known as the “city of Islamic students”. However, despite its largely Muslim population, it has a reputation as a “peaceful” city because it is home to many members of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest moderate Muslim organisation.

Sadly, it has recently become a centre for attacks and violence, including an attack against police headquarters in April, which have undermined its positive image.

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