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Interfaith Relations in Indonesia Put to the Litmus Test

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The tension between Muslims, the dominant religion, and Christians, the largest religious minority group, in Indonesia is coming to the fore with the open accusations by Islamic organizations in Bekasi, a town outside Jakarta, that churches have been aggressively converting Muslims in droves.

The Muslim groups, which include the local branch of the traditionally moderate Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) as well as the militant Front for Islamic Defenders (FPI), declared war against evangelism at the end of their congress in June. They set up a task force empowered to stop "Christianization" of Muslims in the township.

The congress would not have raised so much of an eyebrow if this was an affair involving the usual suspects like the FPI, which have of late been waging a "jihad" against people of other religions, including razing and vandalizing churches, harassing Christian masses, and attacking "misguided" Islamic sects like the Ahmadiyah. Militant, and at times destructive, these groups have never been seen as representing the mainstream Muslims in Indonesia, and most people would applaud if and when police stopped them from their violent behavior.

But the presence of NU representatives in the Bekasi congress, and the virtual silence of its national leaders as well as of other Muslim leaders who have taken part in many interfaith dialogues in the past, suggests their complicity if not of their shared concern about the activities of Christian evangelism in the country.

This could spell trouble for the relations between the religious communities in Indonesia, and raises questions about the effectiveness and sincerity of these interfaith dialogues, which were supposedly designed to build understandings and dispel mutual fears and suspicions between people of different faiths.

One of the criticisms about these dialogues is that they almost always involved the same leaders. Familiarity certainly helps to improve their communication but these dialogues have mostly excluded leaders of the more vocal or radical groups.

But any notion that the dialogues merely serve to preach the converted may also be far-fetching, as the Bekasi episode now shows. What guarantees do we have that those who participated in interfaith dialogues had seriously carried the message of peace when they went back to their flocks?

The Bekasi affair has opened up the Pandora Box of the fierce competition between different religious organizations in the battle for the soul of Indonesians, particularly between Islam and Christianity. With the 1945 Constitution guaranteeing freedom of faith, there isn't any law that can stop any religious organizations from conducting their propagation activities with the aim of saving human souls.

A government regulation issued in 1978 forbids any attempt to convert people who already have a religion. This virtually limits evangelism in Indonesia to the eastern province of Papua, where Christian missionaries have been most active. But the regulation does not carry weight as it contravenes the constitution and it has been virtually ignored by all religious organizations, Christians and Muslims alike.

Mosques, churches, and to a lesser extent, temples, have seen their share of converting people into their religions without any interference from the state, in Jakarta as in most other cities across the archipelago. There are no statistics to show who is winning the battle, but Muslim groups lately seem bent on stopping the conversion out of their religion. Religious conversions happen for many reasons, whether through the acts of propagation, through daily contacts or marriages, but there is nothing that the state can do about what is constitutionally regarded as the rights of individuals.

Religious propagation is mostly conducted discretely rather than openly, and this allowed the leaders of different religions to remain courteous with one another as they meet in the interfaith dialogues. Leaders of mainstream Islamic organizations were also able to distance themselves from the violent behavior by the likes of the FPI.

But the Bekasi affair, in which the Muslim groups have declared war against Christianity, and the complicity, if not the silence, of the traditionally moderate Muslim organizations, has now raised the stake. The last thing Indonesia needs is a religious war on a larger scale than the one we saw erupting in Maluku 2000.

While dialogue remains the best and probably the only course to avoid a religious confrontation in Indonesia, it is time that these religious leaders start addressing the serious issues and have a hard and serious discussion, instead of avoiding them. It would help if they were also sincere and honest in these dialogues.