Lutheran Christian-Muslim Study Team Looks at Challenges of Co-Existence in Indonesia

At a series of meetings in Indonesia, Christians and Muslims discussed the causes of inter-religious strife, and the nation’s transition to Democracy through changes in social, religious
( [email protected] ) Aug 14, 2004 06:49 PM EDT

There is a growing trend of both Christian and Muslim fanaticism in Indonesia since the 1998 fall of former President Suharto’s dictatorial regime, reported members of a study team on Christian-Muslim relations after meetings in the cultural city of Jogyakarta, Central Java province. However, the Lutheran World Federation (LWF) group added that traditional resources for finding inter-religious solutions are also increasingly being applied.

“[In Indonesia] the common cultural capital of the nation is more important than its religious diversities,” said study team member Prof. Amin Abdullah, president of one of the country’s largest Islamic universities. He noted that although the 50-year state ideology of Pancasila accepted the religions of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Islam, most Indonesians felt there was still an urgent need for grassroots initiatives aimed at improving relations between religions and ethnic communities.

Abdullah argued that in the absence of strict state controls, recurring incidents of religious strife testify to the challenges emerging with new freedoms in Indonesia, an archipelago of 240 million inhabitants, comprising 87 percent Muslims, around 10 percent Christians and three percent Hindus and Buddhists.

The repeated calls for the application of Islamic law (Sharia) are making both Christians and Muslims nervous. “Pastors ask, do they want to turn Christians into Muslims?” noted study team member Prof. Jamilin Sirait, principal of the Theological College of the Protestant Christian Batak Church in North Sumatra. They fear that under Sharia, the status of Christians would be reduced to that of second-class citizens, he said.

In Indonesia many Muslims are of the opinion that Sharia would help advance the country’s fight against rampant corruption and poverty, but analyses on the possible repercussions of this law indicate that its implications are not well understood. It is also not widely known how Indonesian Sharia would differ from what is applied in other countries. The study team was informed by members of Rahima, a Jakarta-based grassroots activist group that they now begin their village workshops for women with the question: "How will your position and freedom of movement change once Sharia governs your life?"

Agus Purnomo, a regional leader of the Justice Party (PKS), said his party has stopped advocating for Sharia. "This was similar to political suicide," he told the study team members. "All we want is for the government to adopt Islamic values. Following methods from Christian liberation theology, we formed basic communities that help people to become aware of their political rights and instill a spirit of struggle in them," he explained.

The Sumatran group, Religious Leaders Forum for Harmony, a platform for monthly discussions on inter-faith issues, told the study team that both Christian and Muslim trends of fanaticism were a cause for inter-religious strife. They cited the building of churches by evangelical Christian missionary groups in the midst of mostly Muslim villages as an issue that angers Muslims, leading to the destruction of churches. Some Muslims also considered Christians’ usage of Arabic Islamic greetings as a threat to their religious identity.

“Indonesia faces a multi-dimensional crisis,” said Indonesian social critic Bakhtiar Effendi before the first presidential elections on July 5. “We have to redesign the nation and find new levels of social, religious and political harmony.” Effendi added that the transition from a controlled state to democracy is not easy.

However, during its concluding meetings in Yogyakarta, home to the renowned Institute of Inter-faith Dialogue in Indonesia (Interfidei), the study team saw promising indications for dialogue among the country’s religiously diverse communities.

LWF, a global communion of Christian churches in the Lutheran tradition, acts on behalf of its member churches in areas of common interest such as ecumenical and inter-faith relations, theology, humanitarian assistance, human rights, communication, and the various aspects of mission and development work. LWF has 136 member churches in 76 countries representing 62.3 million of the almost 66 million Lutherans worldwide.