Ten weeks ago, Christmas Day passed peacefully across Indonesia. The holiday respite was welcome relief for the Christian minority populace in this Southeast Asian country of 200 million.

In Surabaya, the country's second-largest city and site of a fiery anti-Christian riot last June, Maranatha Church, a multiethnic congregation, celebrated a low-key but entirely public Christmas service.

The congregation sang "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," "O Come, All Ye Faithful," "Joy to the World," and "Go, Tell It on the Mountain" in Bahasa Indonesian, the national language. Worshipers listened to a sermon, and an offering was collected. Then everyone wished everyone else a Merry Christmas and filed out into the parking lot under the blazing late-morning tropical sun.

Yet, 24 hours later, as though on cue, another disturbing incident in a disturbing year happened to Indonesian Christians, who live within a country with the largest Muslim concentration.

In Tasikmalaya, a city of 250,000 in West Java about 120 miles southeast of the capital, Jakarta, Muslim rioters destroyed four churches, more than 80 shops and department stores, 12 police stations, six banks, four factories, four schools, and three hotels. The rioters, estimated to have numbered more than 10,000, scrawled obscenities and slogans such as "No to Jesus," "No to the Jews," and "Police are super-corrupt" on walls and left at least three dead in their wake.

A DIVIDED SOCIETY: "Tasikmalaya is divided now," a Muslim scholar later told the Bangkok-based newspaper The Nation. "It will take a long time to heal the wounds."

For the 42,000 Protestant and Roman Catholic churches in Indonesia, last year was by all accounts a trial by fire. While North American Christians were mobilized by the black church arsons in 1996, Indonesian church burnings were rarely mentioned outside Indonesian circles (CT, Nov. 11, 1996, p. 96).

Although Indonesian church leaders report more than 200 church vandalisms or burnings since 1991, the frequency and severity of the violence in the past 12 months was beyond any previous experience.

Prior to the December 26 incident, there were organized church vandalisms and burnings on June 9 and October 10 last year. And the rioting has continued this year with six churches being damaged on January 30.

Since June 1996, at least 50 churches have been damaged or destroyed. Church members have been robbed and assaulted. One church's pastor, three of his family members, and a staff worker have been killed. All were trapped inside their burning church when they died.

Article continues below

Karel Erari, a Protestant pastor from the remote province of Irian Jaya, a largely Christianized region on the western half of New Guinea, says, "We need international solidarity. People around the world—Christians—should take part in the struggle of Christians in Indonesia."

Indonesia's anti-Christian incidents in 1996 took place during a time of heightened political tension within Indonesian society. The riots did not solely target churches, but included shops, banks, homes, and businesses.

A nation of 13,000 islands stretching across more than 3,000 miles, Indonesia is home to hundreds of ethnic groups, tribes, and languages. About 85 percent of Indonesian inhabitants are Muslims, but Indonesia is not an Islamic state.

The government uses the home-grown ideology of Pancasila as a means of stimulating social conformity and harmony. The Pancasila principle of belief in "one Supreme God" is enshrined in the constitution. Pancasila also promotes civilized humanity, national unity, democracy, and social justice. The government requires all citizens to declare adherence to one of five faiths: Islam, Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, Hinduism, or Buddhism.

Thus, hundreds of other religious groups, such as Jehovah's Witnesses and Baha'is, are officially disallowed. Also, the country's visible and relatively prosperous ethnic Chinese minority is not permitted to practice the traditional Chinese religions of Taoism and Confucianism. Most ethnic Chinese Indonesians are either nominal or believing Protestant Christians.

POLITICAL UNREST: Indonesian evangelicals, who number less than 5 percent of the population, especially find themselves living on the edge, not only alongside Muslims, but also with an authoritarian government that values religious and political harmony over liberty.

Recent anti-Christian riots occurred in the context of a rapidly developing society. President Suharto, a former army general, has held Indonesians under rigid rule since coming to power in 1966. Yet, three decades after his ascendance, violent political turmoil has set the stage for the Muslim backlash and Christian church burnings.

In mid-1996, the government moved to seize political control of the opposition Indonesian Democratic Party. This political party had been headed by popular leader Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Sukarno, Indonesia's founder. Last July, soldiers stormed the Jakarta headquarters of Megawati's political organization, sparking the largest riot in the capital since 1974.

Article continues below

Although national parliamentary elections occurring in May are expected to lead in 1998 to a seventh five-year term for the 75-year-old Suharto, many Indonesians are looking beyond his reign.

In the meantime, Suharto retains a firm grip on the government and has not revealed a succession plan. One strong candidate to succeed Suharto is B. J. Habibie, his high-profile technology minister.

Habibie is closely associated with the government-sponsored Indonesian Association of Muslim Intellectuals, known as ICMI (pronounced itch-me). In recent years, Suharto, officially a Muslim, himself has moved to maintain good relations between the Indonesian government and Islamic religious leaders. For example, he made a highly publicized haj (Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca) in 1991. icmi is in large part the government's attempt to short-circuit criticism from independent Muslim groups. The largest independent group, with 30 million members, is Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). Its leader, Abdurrahman Wahid, is widely respected as a moderate.

"To be talking frankly," Megawati said in an interview with Christianity Today, "I'm very happy that they have a leader like Abdurrahman Wahid, who is very broad-minded."

Both Tasikmalaya and East Java's Situbondo, where a mob of 10,000 burned 21 churches and a number of other buildings in October, are NU strongholds. What this means, some Indonesians speculate, is that an entity such as ICMI may be attempting to discredit the moderate NU by associating it with civil unrest.

Christian churches have provided an easy target because they often represent a marginalized minority. Yet NU leader Wahid boldly condemned each of the riots, saying initially, "I ask for God to forgive those who did this thing without knowing the serious consequences for the community, nation, and state." He used even stronger words after Tasikmalaya, saying, "I condemn this incident even if there were Nahdlatul Ulama members among the perpetrators."

After Situbondo, President Suharto met Wahid and, in a significant gesture, shook his hand. "The handshake is an implicit acknowledgment that political problems have become too sophisticated and complex to be solved by military means alone," sociologist Arief Budiman commented in wire service accounts.

MUSLIM-CHRISTIAN TENSIONS: Tensions between Christians and Muslims in Indonesia have a strong ethnic component.

The foot soldiers of the October 10 Situbondo riot included young, lower-middle-class, urbanized members of an ethnic group, the Madurese, originally from the small island of Madura, off the north coast of eastern Java. The group is known for provincial attitudes and staunch adherence to Islam.

Article continues below

The Tasikmalaya incident originated in a dispute between two Muslims—a police corporal and the religious teacher who had disciplined his son—and it became an anti-Christian and anti-Chinese riot largely by default.

There are more than 200 Protestant denominational groups active across Indonesia, with many of the larger churches tracing their roots to colonial times. They are often concentrated within certain islands or regions, which diminishes their ability to influence national affairs.

The Batak, former headhunters on Sumatra, now are the largest Christianized ethnic group in the country. The Batak Church, an independent denomination with a Lutheran heritage, has congregations established across Java, an island the size of Wisconsin, where 100 million Indonesians live.

Sumba and Moluccu are majority Protestant, as is West Timor; East Timor and Flores are Roman Catholic. Protestantism with a Dutch Reformed background dominates the northern part of Irian Jaya. American evangelical missionaries are active in the interior highlands of that province. Charismatic and Pentecostal groups are active everywhere.

A MATTER OF JEALOUSY? Yet it is the Indonesian Christian Church, largely directed by prosperous ethnic Chinese, that has been a frequent casualty of recent rioting.

In late January, rioting by Muslims occurred in a village outside Jakarta. After a Chinese Christian trader purportedly complained about loud nighttime prayers, Muslims reacted violently, burning the trader's home and shop as well as churches, banks, and cars. Indonesian troops quickly restored order.

For Irianese pastor Erari, the rioting over the past year is "a matter of jealousy."

"And that's why in some cases, if there is social unrest, most of the Chinese shops and belongings are destroyed." Ethnic Chinese, many of them Christian, are on average more prosperous than typical Indonesians.

"People here are very afraid, especially among the Chinese," says J. E. Sahetapy, a professor at East Java's leading Christian university, "because they will always be the scapegoat." Speaking three days before the Tasikmalaya riot, he commented, "On the surface, it looks very tranquil, but in fact, people are anxious."

Some fear that matters have not been helped by Chinese Christians rebuilding their burned churches "too fast," thus displaying anew their wealth.

Article continues below

Even some other Christians criticize some habits of the Chinese community. Chinese "should not be exclusive," says Sahetapy. "They control the economy, the banks, all the big factories. And every time there is a riot here, the Chinese are the first scapegoats.

"They are the eastern Jews," Sahetapy says. "In fact, they have many similarities. They have their own ghettos, so to say."

Indonesian Christians have a robust sense of their own identity, both as a religious minority and as Christians.

The outspoken and loquacious Sahetapy is seldom at a loss for words. "Actually, [Muslims] are now hoping to dominate us, like in Malaysia or in Egypt," he claims. "If they succeed, I think Indonesia will not be one nation anymore. Then Pancasila is finished."

Sahetapy cites Isaiah 55:11 to urge his fellow Christians not to be fearful or shy. "It's our duty to proclaim the gospel. It's our duty to be the light and the salt of the world," Sahetapy says. "This is not the first time in Christian history when Christians have been persecuted. If Christianity is true, then we cannot be defeated."

He points out that Indonesia is not officially an Islamic country, and that Christians have full rights. "Christians do not just get our board and lodging in Indonesia," he asserts. "We participated in the struggle for independence. The proof of this is the crosses in every military cemetery."

TAKING PART IN THE STRUGGLE: Sularso Sopater, head of the Fellowship of Indonesian Churches, in guarded comments suggests that material aid from the West is not the most important issue. "We need the prayers to help us maintain our Christianity."

Erari, an Irianese pastor, says part of the difficulty is the reluctance in some quarters to recognize legitimate Christian efforts. "The Christians contribute a lot. In the areas of politics, economics, and culture, our contribution is substantial.

"But because we are in the minority, we have to accept that Islam, which is in the majority, will make all kinds of decisions: in economic life, in religious life as well."

Erari goes beyond these generalities, noting the dislocation, economic deprivation, and military repression that people in his home province have endured, not so much because they are Christians but because they are Irianese.

"Christians in Canada and America should also give attention to the suffering of the people in Irian," Erari says. "Not just as Christians. In economic terms, what does that mean for the rights of the people who live on the land?" Many Muslims as well as Christians feel anxious as their society is reshaped by economic and political forces, seemingly beyond any one faction's ability to control. The dominant Javanese culture places a premium on smooth, hassle-free social interactions, and the recent history and future prospect of religious tension is unnerving to many.

Article continues below

THE POLITICS OF IDENTITY: Although the majority of Indonesian Muslims are of the moderate Sunni branch, some Muslim activists seek a more dominant role for Islam.

Gunawan Mohamad, a prominent Muslim intellectual, says Indonesian Muslims are influenced by "the rise of identity politics," and that Indonesian Muslims fear their sense of integrity is being undermined by the advent of market capitalism and a consumer-style economy.

"No one can blame the Muslims for that," Gunawan says. "But that creates a lot of problems." The government, notes Gunawan, lately has recognized and tried to exploit Muslim worries for its own purposes. "It can be dangerous, because you don't know where is the limit."

Sahetapy, who is not Javanese, is more blunt. "Once there will be a conflict," he asserts, "it can be a Bosnia and Serbia or a Northern Ireland. Is that what you want in Indonesia?"

Could Indonesia become another war-torn zone? Sahetapy replies, "It depends on our Muslim brothers."

REBUILDING BEGINS: In the meantime, Indonesian Christians have organized a variety of responses to the violence.

Indonesian believers in North America are using Internet mailing lists and the World Wide Web to draw international attention to the plight of Indonesian churches (http://www.fica.org), including an extensive photo archive of destroyed church buildings.

In Indonesia, the Surabaya Christian Communication Forum in East Java is helping congregations form rehabilitation committees and has secured some government funds to assist in the rebuilding.

Others have pressed for official inquiries by the Human Rights Commission and written letters to Suharto. In a joint statement, Surabaya Christian leaders, insisting on enforcement of their right to freedom of worship, called for "an absolute commitment toward justice [that] has to be carried out in total sincerity."

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.