How many Indonesian mosques are there? Indonesia is counting

Since 2013, a thousand "mosque hunters" have visited the country’s 17,000 islands to count their numbers. So far, they have identified 554,152 mosques but the census is only 75 per cent complete. The government wants to keep an eye on the growing radicalism in the country.

Jakarta (AsiaNews/Agencies) – How many mosques are there in the world’s most populous Islamic country? This is the question a team of a thousand people has been trying to answer since 2013, tasked by the Indonesian government with counting all the Muslim places of worship in the country’s 17,000 islands.

This is monumental task since new mosques open all the time for Fakhry Affan’s team. So far, their number count stands at 554,152 mosques, or 75 per cent of their work. Previous government estimates put the number at more than 740,000.

“I always say there are 800,000 [mosques] but 1 million is also possible,” said Vice President Jusuf Kalla a year ago. At the time, the Religious Affairs Ministry website reported only about 240,000.

The government is also planning to launch an app called Info Masjid, so that Muslims can use their smartphone to find the closest place of worship.

Many ordinary Muslims and clerics hope the move will bring greater transparency, especially in light of the large sums of money imams manage.

For the government, the "mosque hunt" is also a way of monitoring extremists. In fact, “Radical ideology can mushroom anywhere and mosques are one of the easiest places for it to spread,” Affan said.

"Why? Because you don't need to invite people to the mosque, they'll come anyway,” he explained. So “We want to ensure that all imams and (mosque) committees are moderate because Islam in Indonesia is moderate.”

The latter has been put to the test in recent years as Muslim hardliners become increasingly vocal in public and dozens of extremist groups who share the ideology of the Islamic State group find home in the country.

In November 2018, just over six months after brutal attacks against three churches in Surabaya (East Java), Indonesia’s state intelligence agency (Badan Intelijen Negara) announced a worrying discovery. In one Jakarta neighbourhood, the imams of 41 places of worship were preaching extremism to government officials.

Indonesia’s new Vice President Ma'ruf Amin, a conservative cleric-turned-politician, said that the government will begin to certify preachers and mosques nationwide in order to screen out extremists.

At present, Affan's team have counted 258,958 large mosques and another 295,194 smaller ones, those with a maximum capacity of 40 people. The official and his team hope to finish a first round of counting this year.

“It's pretty rare for a mosque to close down,” he explained, “but one thing is for sure: The number of new ones will keep going up."