Jakarta (AsiaNews) – Mgr Mathinus D Situmorang, president of the Indonesian Bishops of Conference’s (KWI), warned Indonesian political elites on a potentially serious threat to the national interest. The prelate, who is the bishop of Padang (Western Sumatra), delivered his word of caution during the admission ceremony for new members of the Indonesian Catholic University Student Association (PMKRI). In his address, he criticised the state for its powerlessness in the face of dozens of attacks carried out by Islamic fundamentalist groups against churches and Christians.
“In the past, Indonesia was occupied and colonised by foreign rulers. However, the present situation is not much better even if we are ruled by fellow Indonesian citizens,” the bishop said. Here, he was referring to recent attacks carried out by the Islamic Defender Front (FPI), which stormed two places of worship in Rancaekek, Bandung Regency (West Java), forcing their closure. More broadly, he is deeply concerned that religious intolerance is spreading and taking rook among ordinary people.
Muslim extremists, he explained, had no legal right to interfere with the aforementioned places of worship even if they did not have a building permit. What is more, the situation is getting worse because law enforcement is not stopping the Islamists, and it is not clear why. Nonetheless, for the prelate, “A spirit of intolerance is finding fertile ground because of political interests”.
In Parung, Bogor Regency, local authorities issued a ban against the Saint John the Baptist Catholic Church to prevent Christmas celebrations.
“If some Christian communities in Indonesia hold religious ceremonies in the streets or in the open, it is out of necessity because they have been unable to secure a building permit for their place of worship, and this, for years,” Bishop Situmorang explained.
“If the [central] government and local authorities are stopped by every extremist Muslim group, the situation will get worse and the state’s sovereignty will be given away to illegal groups that will carry out actions against the law,” he lamented.
Still, the 3,000 parishioners who belong to the Saint John the Baptist Catholic Church will be able to celebrate Christmas at a local nuns’ compound.
Indonesia’s Defence Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro, who is Catholic, rejected the accusation, saying that any violent act would be punished.
Mgr Situmorang is not so sure. For him, the state is powerless and incapable of dealing with the problem. Yet, he is still “proud to belong to a multicultural society, where the spirit of intolerance is restrained”.
In the meantime, hours before the start of Christmas services, the country has been placed under tight security with thousands of police deployed near churches, 8,000 in Jakarta alone. In Bali, police has secured every strategic site, including churches.
A study by the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace warns that whilst most violent actions are carried out by the infamous FPI, less noticeable actions by other radical Muslim groups are equally worrisome, especially since they are increasingly supported by ordinary people and are attracting even liberal groups and moderate clerics.
There are also rumours that radical elements have infiltrated the moderate Indonesian Ulemas Council (MUI), the country’s most important organisation of Muslim clerics, which wields the greatest influence in moral and political terms.
According to the Setara report, beside the FPI, other important violent Islamist groups are the Islamic Reform Movement (Garis) and the Islamic People’s Forum (FUI).
The same study noted that in “2005, FUI’s chief Al Khaththath [. . .] made it to the MUI’s board of directors,” and at the organisation’s annual meeting that year, he was among those who “actively lobbied the MUI to issue an edict forbidding the practice of liberal Islam”.