10/22/2004, 00.00
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Former Indonesian President defends a Catholic church

by Mathias Hariyadi

Former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid (aka Gus Dur) is a moderate Muslim leader who says that religious freedom must be guaranteed for Catholics or he will take their case to court. Some 500 attacks have been reported in the country in the last 14 years.

Jakarta (AsiaNews) – Former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid condemned in no uncertain terms the forced closure by local Muslim militants of the St Bernadette Catholic School in Cileduk, Banten province (40 km west of Jakarta). Speaking before the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), the country's largest Muslim organisation, Wahid, who is also known as Gus Dur and is a former NU chairman, urged local authorities to let the school reopen.

The school is part of a compound managed by the Sisters of the Child Jesus and was forced shut in early October by members of the Islam Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam or FPI).

For the past ten years, local Catholics have had to use the gym to say mass because municipal authorities have refused them the necessary permits to build an actual church.

According to Wahid local officials "are responsible for the St Bernadette Compound's closure" and "have forced the priests and the nuns to sign a statement in which they pledged never to use the gym as a temporary church". This is really bad, he said.

"On behalf of myself and the Muslim community in the country, I strongly urge the major of Tangerang and Lurah (village chief) to stop disrupting religious services in the St Bernadette compound. If my demands are not soon met, have no doubts that I shall bring the issue to court," he added. The former president also met the representatives of St Bernadette School, its priests and nuns and some parents to assure them of his support.

Speaking to journalists, he stressed that the perpetrators of the attack against the Catholic school violated Indonesia's constitution. "Every Indonesian citizen," he said, "has the right to express his or her religious beliefs and the state has a duty to facilitate it".

Addressing the country's Muslim religious leaders, he asked: "Where are they now that fellow citizens are violating the human rights of minority Catholics?"

The former president urged all Indonesians to oppose the fundamentalists and fight any form of religious intolerance.

Fr Franz von Magnis-Suseno, lecturer in philosophy at Jakarta's Jesuit-run Driyarkara Institute, does not mince his words when it comes to describing the situation of Christian minorities. "Religious Harmony? Tolerance? Well, it is all bull!" he said. When talking about fundamentalist attacks, he added: "I can't stand all these despicable acts."

"What happened at St Bernadette is not an isolated case," he wrote in Suara Pembaruan, "two months ago, the mayor of Bandung (West Java's capital) signed an official decree for the demolition of 12 churches." Moreover, he stressed, "for some time, attacks against churches, mostly Protestant, have become almost routine. Since 1990 at least 500 attacks have been reported. That's one a week."

For Father Suseno, "the problem is that for Muslim fundamentalists Christianity has to go. It is true that some people have converted to Christianity, but they are just a handful. I am just dismayed that the evangelisation boogeyman is being used and abused by some Muslims to justify anti-Christian violence."

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