Proposed Bill prompts concern for Indonesian believers

( [email protected] ) Mar 05, 2004 05:36 PM EST

A draft religion law under consideration in Indonesia has prompted concerns from some activists and observers who worry how it may affect the country’s persecuted Christian minority. The proposed law will restrict the construction of new churches, and prohibit Muslims from converting to other faiths.

In it’s current form, the Religious Tolerance Bill will prevent Christian evangelism and deny people the right to embrace another faith, as one article says religious rituals will be restricted to members of that religion.

On Wednesday, the Barnabas Fund stated, “The Religious Tolerance Bill is the latest example of Islamic hardliners increasingly making use of legislation to guide Indonesia towards becoming an Islamic state that will codify repression of religious minorities.

“This legislation may well have a profoundly detrimental effect on the Indonesian church if it is passed.”

Already in recent months, a number of churches have been attacked and forced to close under the threat of violence in Jakarta, the capital, and various parts of the country according to the Barnabas Fund, a Christian organization whose purpose is to serve the suffering Church and makes their needs known to Christian around the. After the government issued the Letter of Decision No. 137 in 2002, extremists have been provoking Muslims to take advantage of the ruling and cause difficulties for local churches. The document provides for the closure of churches in Jakarta upon the objection of residents living nearby. At least four churches in the city were forced to shut in late 2003, and another seven suffered the same faith in Banten province, west of Jakarta. There had also been reports of mob intimidation, death threats and vandlism.

Even as such incidents occur, Christians may face deeper problems in the future as a result of the legislative attempts to limit their activities. Islam expert and author Robert Spencer said it was interesting that the proposed legislation was named the Religious Tolerance Bill. “It is useful to bear in mind that when many Muslims speak of Islam as a tolerant faith, they mean the tolerance that Muslim masters had for the dhimmi Christians and Jews; the tolerance of superior for an inferior.”

“Dhimmi” refers to the status given to Christians, Jews, and other non-Muslim minorities living in Islamic societies.

Spencer said that the draft Indonesia law has revived some age-old conditions in Islamic law for the treatment of dhimmi peoples. “Restrictions on building new churches or repairing old ones are among the oldest and most consistently applied provisions of dhimmi law in Islamic history,” Spencer stated. As for the conversion issue, Spencer pointed out that under traditional Islamic law, conversion from Islam was a capital offense. And even today, although conversions between faiths in Indonesia are allowed under the country’s Human Rights Law, converts to minority religions sometimes feel reluctant to publicize their conversions because they fear discrimination.

The Indonesian Institute argued that the basis of religious tolerance was religious freedom and not laws and regulations. However, critics see the bill as part of a wider effort by fundamentalists to propel the world’s largest Muslim country towards becoming a full-fledged Islamic state under shari’a law.