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The President must be more courageous to talk about religious freedom

The Bishops' Conference of Indonesia (KWI) has criticized President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and asked him to show more courage in defence of religious freedom. Bishop Martinus Dogma Situmorang, chairman of the Kwi, and Mgr. Johannes Pujasumarta, KWI Secretary General, signed the letter to the President on August 16. 

In their letter the bishops strongly invoke the intervention of President Yudhoyono to stop the wave of extremism affecting religious minorities: "We are concerned because the state appears unable to ensure protection of religious minorities ... when they are under pressure from the majority religious groups".

The bishops refer to incidents in recent weeks in Bekasi and Bogor against Christians of the Protestant Church of Batak (Hkbp) and those of the Church of Yasmin. The faithful of both communities have been forced to pray outdoors because town officials have sealed their places of worship. Moreover, their religious functions are disturbed and interrupted by crowds of Muslim extremists. 

"We - the Bishops' letter continues - we are very concerned that many of our Christian brothers and sisters ... are forcibly pressured to abandon their religion and stop professing their faith. Mr. President, we have long awaited for you to show courage and notify any extremist group that all citizens are equal before the law".

"We look forward to hearing from you, Mr. President, that Indonesia will certainly not allow the majority to put pressure on the minority." In their letter the bishops have also criticized widespread corruption, especially in politics. Until now, Yudhoyono has done nothing to stop rampant extremism in the country. Only last August 15 he stated that religious freedom is protected by the Constitution and this only after the newspapers attacked his weakness.

Tired of government inaction, Christians and other religious minorities in Indonesia are pushing back against rising violence by Islamic hard-liners.

For months, Christians in the industrial city of Bekasi have been warned against worshipping on a field that houses their shuttered church. They've arrived to find human feces dumped on the land and sermons have been interrupted by demonstrators chanting "Infidels!" and "Leave now!"

But last week, tensions finally exploded.

Twenty worshippers were met by 300 Islamic hard-liners, many of whom hurled shoes and water bottles before pushing past a row of riot police. The mob chased down and punched several members of the group.

"The constitution guarantees our right to practice our religion!" Yudi Pasaribu of the Batak Christian Protestant Church said, vowing to return every Sunday until their request for a place of worship, made more than two years ago, is approved.

"And we want to do that on our own property, in our own church."

Indonesia, a secular country of 237 million people, has more Muslims than any other in the world. Though it has a long history of religious tolerance, a small extremist fringe has become more vocal in recent years.
Hard-liners have also become more violent, according to the Setara Institute for Peace and Democracy, a human rights group, which said there have already been 28 attacks on religious freedom in 2010, including everything from preventing groups from performing prayers to burning houses of worship.

The institute said there were 18 such incidents in all of 2009 and 17 in 2008.

Though most Indonesians are moderate and oppose violence, critics say President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's government has been slow to intervene because it relies heavily on the support of Islamic parties in parliament.

Acting on the orders of local officials, police helped hard-liners forcibly close several mosques owned by Ahmadiyah, an Islamic sect they call "deviant," last month in Manis Lor, a village in West Java province.

But members of the sect, who differ from other Muslims about whether Muhammad was the "final" monotheist prophet, have so far refused to buck under.

"We're tired of being harassed and attacked," said Yati Hidayat, a 48-year-old Ahmadiyah member. "We have the right to pray just like any other religious community. If anyone tries to stop us, we're ready to fight."

Recent attacks have largely been led by the Islamic Defenders Front, or the FPI, which is pushing for the implementation of Islamic-based laws in regions across the nation.

They are known for smashing bars, attacking transvestites and going after those considered blasphemous with bamboo clubs and stones. Perpetrators are rarely punished or even questioned by police.

Yudhoyono has in recent days urged his countrymen to be tolerant of others, especially during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. But he has made no direct reference to attacks making headlines in Bekasi, just 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the capital, or Manis Lor, 180 miles (300 kilometers) farther east.

Hundreds of people held an interfaith rally in Jakarta over the weekend demanding the government take a tougher line.

"Those attackers have to be arrested, otherwise they will feel their actions are right," said Saur Siagain, a rally organizer, standing in front of a banner that said: "The president has to be responsible in guaranteeing freedom of religion."

Minority groups, who represent less than 15 percent of the population, have long tried to keep a low profile.

Though thousands of churches dot the countryside, groups complain that getting permits to build new ones can be nearly impossible. Construction is often put on hold for years as local authorities weigh the risks of angering hard-liners.

In the meantime, some congregations have held services in apartments, office buildings and even shopping malls.

But as attacks become more frequent and more brutal, religious minorities _ together with moderate Muslims _ appear to be losing patience.

"The Batak Christian Protestant Church and Ahmadiyah were around long before FPI," said Hilmar Farid from Indonesia's Social History Institute. "They are getting tired of being intimidated. "

In a rare show of force, hundreds of police showed up to protect the Batak Christians on Aug. 8. But they made little effort to stop FPI members as they got increasingly vitriolic.

"The Batak Christians deserve to be stabbed to death," yelled Murhali Barda, who heads the FPI chapter in Bekasi. "If they refuse to go home we are ready to fight."

An argument broke out between Barda and three female members of the congregation. The hard-liners shoved and started punching them. All the while, men chanted from a truck and clerics made speeches saying "Leave. ... We will not let you perform prayers here!"

The crowd, made up largely of children, cheered in response: "God is great!"

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