Indonesia's Religious Frontline

At 8 am each Sunday morning for two years at the Indramayu State Prison in West Java prison, the jailhouse doors were opened to allow Christians in the surrounding community to attend religious services in a small, brightly painted chapel beside the prison's mosque. Three women – Rebekka Zakaria and her two friends, Ratna Bangun and Eti Pangesti built the chapel and claim to have made more than 20 adult converts within the prison walls.

The three women found themselves inside the prison after they were convicted in 2005 of proselytizing Muslim children, which is a crime in Indonesia. Released on June 8 after serving two years of their three-year sentence, the women are now free, but their experience points to the bewildering complexity of Indonesia’s religious divide. These local female evangelists, who admit their guilt, say they were following the dictates of their own religion to spread their version of the word of God. In the process, they ran up against the suspicion and laws of the majority community in which they live.

Curiously, prison authorities were happy to tolerate the women’s Sunday service, an enthusiastic event with about 30 visitors Eti singing in the front row, Ratna leading emotional gospel songs and Rebekka preaching. But their Sunday school on the outside was a different story, one that began in 2003, when Pangesti opened the school in her modest home in the town of Harguelis.

Called “Happy Sunday,” it had 10 Christian students and it illustrates the tensions that, for better or worse, can shatter a fragile religious balance. In Indonesia, a society where Christianity and Islam exist in an uneasy equilibrium within an officially secular state, disturbing the status quo can have alarming results.

Unlike the neighboring Az-Zaitun School, a typical pesantren , or Islamic boarding school delivering a Koranic education for thousands of students, Happy Sunday appeared to be small and innocuous. But the Christian school’s students slowly began to increase in numbers as the children started bringing friends. Before it was forced to close, the school was teaching basic reading and providing meals, clothing, and other small gifts for an additional 30 Muslim children.

"We ate together milk, noodles, ice cream… the children really liked it!" Rebekka said with a laugh during a jailhouse interview shortly before she was released. To avoid any misunderstanding within the 95 percent Islamic community, she says, each of the children, aged six to 12, was asked to have written permission from their parents to attend.

But despite the innocence Rebekkah insists was the reality behind the Sunday school, the relationship with the Muslim community took a dramatically negative turn about a year and a half after the school opened. In April 2005 the mother of one of the students complained that the Muslim children were being secretly converted to Christianity. In particular the gifts the women had given to the poor children were interpreted as bribes to entice them to convert.

"They heard that I cheated the children with food and clothes," Rebekka said in the prison interview. As news of the complaint spread through the community, there were also rumors that the women would be arrested for violating Indonesia's 2002 Child Protection Act, which makes it a crime to convert children under the age of 17.

In an effort to defuse the situation, the women shut down their school, but the damage was already done. All three were arrested. Happy Sunday was officially over and the benign image of the Christian women was to be tested in an Indonesian courtroom that soon became a venue for anger and protests. Some 45 days after the arrests, the trial began and ultimately blew into a religious confrontation.

On one side angry fundamentalist Muslims called for the women to be convicted. Internationally the case drew the attention of fundamentalist Christian websites eager to depict Indonesia as intolerant and hostile to Christianity.

Moderates got lost in the muddle. Former president Abdurahman Wahid, the widely respected leader of the Nahdlatul Ulama, the 40 million-strong Islamic group founded by his grandfather, reportedly sent a letter appealing for leniency, but protests grew. Christian activists say public protest made any verdict other than guilty impossible. Wahid’s letter could not change the verdict.

Speaking from prison, Rebekka said the trial had little to do with justice and everything to do with radical Islam. "He (the judge) told my lawyer that we were not guilty, but he had no choice but to convict, the people demanded it,” she said.

Fundamentalist Christian websites insist that the protests were organized by the Majeles Ulama Indonesia, or MUI, a government-sanctioned organization of Muslim scholars, but it seems more likely that the MUI, which includes both moderates and conservatives, did not officially sanction the masked protesters – some wearing shirts emblazoned with the image of radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir – who crowded into the court and threatened to administer their own form of justice if the court did not convict the defendants. At one point protesters even brought a coffin to the courthouse.

But the fact is that the three women acknowledge that they were proselytizing the children. By giving gifts they were already engaged in a controversial practice, one that is spreading across Indonesia. According to Dr Nadirsyah Hosen, an authority on Islam in Indonesia and a lecturer at the University of Wollongong in Australia, "There are many reports across (the) Indonesian archipelago of Muslims being offered economic incentives to change their faith."

Meeting with Rebekka and her Sunday school colleagues in the cement and steel visitor's hall at the prison, they hardly look like radicals. The three beaming women joke about the prison as their "palace" and refuse to attack the followers of Islam.

The three do claim, however, that the MUI orchestrated the protests, supposedly arranging for hundreds of their supporters to be bussed in to surround the courthouse on a regular basis. Efforts to contact the MUI for comment were unsuccessful.

Reverend Rahmat Manullang, an observer of the trial from the Christian organization Bless Indonesia Today, alleges that the trial produced "false witnesses," had "no evidence" and was heavily influenced by "provocation from Muslim leaders."

As it has been told so far by right-wing Christian publications, the women are victims of Islamic extremism and Christians in general are at grave risk of persecution in Indonesia. But one key fact has been ignored: the women’s guilt. The claim of legal injustice, and the rhetoric of Christian groups crying foul ignores the fact that they broke the law.

Rebekka was asked if there is a law against converting children. She answered: “Yeah.” Did you try and convert children? She replied, "Ah, yeah. Children … under 12, under 12."

So they became Christians? Rebekka: "Yes."

The claim of legal injustice and the rhetoric of the Christian groups is based on the suggestion that the trial was biased towards Islam. Yet, claiming injustice requires ignoring the fact that they did break the law. Thus, whether dragging a symbolic coffin to a trial or secretly converting children to another faith both the Islamic firebrands and the Sunday school teachers demonstrated behavior that places them on the frontline of religious conflict. In Indonesia, that is an unsettling place to be.