BEKASI Tired of government inaction, Christians and other religious minorities in Indonesia are pushing back against rising violence by Islamic hard-liners.
Christians were warned last week against worshipping on a field that houses a shuttered church in the industrial city of Bekasi, but 20 members of the congregation showed up anyway, opening their service with a hymn.
The act of defiance enraged 300 Islamic hard-liners, many of whom hurled shoes and chanted death threats before pushing past a row of riot police, chasing down members of the group and beating some with sticks.
“It's nonsense,” said Yudi Tambunan of the Batak Christian Protestant Church, vowing to return every Sunday until their request for a house of worship, made more than two years ago, is approved.
“The constitution guarantees our right to practice our religion,” he said. “And we want to do that on our own property, in our own church.”
Indonesia, a secular country of 235 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 shutting down or burning houses of worship.
The institute said there were 18 such incidents in all of 2009 and 17 in 2008.
Although most Indonesians are moderate and oppose violence, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's government has been slow to intervene because it relies heavily on the support of Islamic parties in parliament.
Hundreds of people held an inter-faith rally the capital Sunday critisizing his soft 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.”
In some cases, provincial leaders even appear to be fanning the flames.
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, are refusing 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, were 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.
Minority groups, who represent less than 15 percent of the population, have long tried to keep a low profile.
Christians have quietly applied and reapplied for permits so they could build their own churches, sometimes putting construction 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 they - 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.”
They are also weary of government inaction.
Yudhoyono has in recent days urged his countrymen to be tolerate of others, especially during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. But he has not made any direct reference to recent violence.
Though police were present during the Aug. 8 attack in Bekasi, 25 miles (40 kilometers) east of the capital, they made little effort to stop FPI members as they got more and more vitriolic.
“The Batak Christians deserve to be stabbed to death,” yelled Murhali Barda, who heads the local chapter of FPI. “If they refuse to go home we are ready to fight.”
An argument broke out between Barda and three female members of the congregation.
He grabbed one by the neck and other hard-liners 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!”
“God is great!” the crowd cheered in response.
Political analysts warn that unless the government steps in to end persecution of religious minorities soon, groups like FPI will get bigger and more powerful. - AP