Jakarta (AsiaNews) - The powerful Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) has come out against Catholic schools in Tegal District, Central Java province, issuing a "controversial" a fatwa that has sparked reactions and protests.
For MUI leaders, such schools are "haram", "morally unsound" for young Muslim pupils despite the fact that they score high for the quality of the education they provide and have as a consequence attracted a large number of non-Christians.
In so doing, they have opened up a new fault line after their recent attack against Miss World Contest; this in the world's most populous Muslim nation, where Catholics are a small but significant presence.
For the schools, the fatwa is a great blow, coming in the wake of attacks from Muslim extremists and local governments that included threats of closure that were however eventually dropped.
The Ulema Council has often intervened to enforce orthodox views about Muslim precepts, such as how to butcher animals or uphold Islamic mores. However, in this case the motivation behind MUI's stance is "political" in nature. It follows appeals by local authorities to force Catholic schools to teach the Muslim religion to its non-Christian pupils.
Harun Abdi Manaf, MUI leader in Tegal, said that the council went through "lengthy discussions" and that a "decision was taken in April" to issue "a fatwa destined for the parents" of Muslim pupils, telling them not to send their children to Catholic schools. He explicitly referred to Catholic schools in Tegal and Pemalang, which have been under the threat of closure because they opposed a government order that requires them to reach Islam.
In addition to Mgr Julianus Sunarko, bishop of Purwokerto, many Muslim families have come to the defence of the two schools, claiming their right to a quality education. In fact, many schools run by nuns, priests and lay Catholics offer such excellence in education that they are sought after by non-Christians.
However, government authorities have tried too often to exert some form of control (however small) over these schools. The demand to have Islam included in the curriculum has thus become a rallying point to gain Islamist political and electoral support.
Indeed, Indonesian authorities in recent years have repeatedly given in to MUI's pressures. For example in Aceh, a province run by Islamic radicals, women are not allowed to wear tight pants or skirts.
In March 2011, MUI also lashed out at the flag raising "because Mohammed never did it". Before that, it had launched anathemas against Facebook for its "amoral" nature, as well as yoga, smoking and voting rights, in particular for women.