Indonesian Islamists eye proselytising Christians

Indonesia is a secular nation with more Muslims than any other in the world.

Bekasi: A banner with a picture of a young, bespectacled Christian man is draped in front of a mosque, a fiery noose around his neck and the words, "This man deserves the death penalty!"

Churches are shut down. And an Islamic youth militia held its first day of training.

Though the events all occurred less than nine miles (15 kilometres) from Indonesia`s bustling capital, making headlines in local papers and dominating chats on social networking sites such as Facebook, they`ve sparked little public debate in the halls of power.

"I really see this as a threat to democracy," said Arbi Sanit, a political analyst, noting leaders never like to say anything that can be perceived as "un-Islamic”, because they depend heavily on the support of Muslim parties in Parliament.

"Being popular is more important to them than punishing those who are clearly breaking the law," Sanit said.

Indonesia, a secular nation with more Muslims than any other in the world, has a long history of religious tolerance, though a small extremist fringe has become more vocal in recent years. Members of the Islamic Defenders Front, or FPI, have been known to smash bars, attack transvestites and go after minority sects with bamboo clubs and stones.

Now, they are targeting Christians in the fast-growing industrial city of Bekasi.

Outsiders have steadily poured into the Jakarta suburb in search of work, bringing with them their own religions, traditions and values. That has made conservative Islamic clerics nervous. Some have used sermons to warn their flock to be on the lookout for signs of proselytisation.

So, when 14 busloads of villagers arrived on June 30 at the home of Henry Sutanto, who heads the Christian-run Mahanaim Foundation, rumours quickly spread that he and Andreas Sanau, the condemned man whose face appeared on the mosque banner, were planning a mass baptism.

A spokeswoman for the group, Marya Irawan, insisted the crowds were invited as part of efforts to reach out to the poor.

The FPI was not convinced. Video footage provided by the hard-line group shows hundreds of people getting off buses and entering the residential complex, many of them women in headscarves holding babies in slings, and milling about the pool. When a questioner thrust the camera in their faces, demanding to know why they came, most just looked bewildered.

"Someone asked if I wanted to come," one woman said with a shrug. Others accepted a ride into the city because they were bored, and thought they would at least get a free lunch out of it.

When the questioner found Sanau, who had one ear to a phone, he asked if baptisms would be taking place. The 29-year-old Christian`s brow furrowed. He shook his head, "No, no." Asked if he had an ID card, Sanau flashed it at the interviewer, who zoomed in on his home address. The house has since been abandoned.

"He should be executed!" said Murhali Barda, who heads the Bekasi chapter of the FPI. "He tried to carry out mass baptisms!"

Days later, Barda`s group joined nine others in recommending at a local congress that Bekasi mosques help set up youth militias to act as moral police and to intimidate Christians who are trying to convert Muslims.

They started training on Saturday morning, about 100 young men turning out on a field wearing martial arts uniforms. Barda stressed there was no plan to arm them.

"We`re doing this because we want to strike fear in the hearts of Christians who behave in such a way," he said. "If they refuse to stop what they`re doing, we`re ready to fight."

A regional leader of the Indonesian Muslim Forum, Bernard Abdul Jabbar, said the youths were given physical training and taught about Islam. "They will guard the Islamic faith and preach the right path to the people," he said.

Priest Andreas Yewangoe, a chairman of the Communion of Indonesian Churches, said the militia will only create fear, nervousness and unrest in the nation. "The government must protect all citizens from anarchist action as mandated by the constitution," Yewangoe said.

Religious-led violence has been on the rise for months in Bekasi.

Mobs have forced shut two churches this year. Last month, a statue of three women was torn down by authorities after hundreds of hard-liners wearing skull caps and white robes took to the streets, claiming the monument symbolised the Holy Trinity.

Weeks earlier, black-clad youths attacked a Catholic-run school over an anonymous blogger`s "blasphemous" website.

Increasingly, the public has jumped into the debate.

Stories appear regularly on the front pages of newspapers about FPI. Opinion pages are filled with letters calling for the group to be banned. More than 50,000 people signed petitions on Facebook, which has turned into a portent political force.

The government has made no public comment except when three lawmakers were attacked by FPI during a meeting in East Java.

Bureau Report

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