Indonesia’s interfaith exchanges: By Arian Fariborz


The Catholic cathedral in Jakarta is just across the road from the city`s largest Muslim place of worship, the Istiqal mosque. The church is often full, with hundreds of Christians gathered in its inner courtyard for prayer. But only a few weeks ago, the scene was not quite so peaceful.
During the Christmas period, the cathedral, like many other churches throughout the country, had to be protected by a large police presence as a result of fears of possible attacks by radical political Islamic groups. The fear is not unjustified. Over the last three years, according to the leadership of the Protestant and Catholic churches in the country, at least 108 church and community buildings have been looted, burnt down or been subjected to threats, especially in West Java.
Gomar Gultom is a pastor and an executive of the Protestant Church in Indonesia. He believes that there are many reasons for the increase in this violence.
"Some of the Muslims see the presence of Christians or churches in Indonesia in the context of Christianisation," he says. "If we build a church, it means that it will be a centre for Christianisation â€" this is how some Muslims understand it. And they worry that most of the uneducated Muslims will become Christian."
Many of the attacks, not just on Christians, but also on Muslim sects like the Ahmadis, are the result of ignorance of religious principles, incitement to intolerance and violence, as well as the increasing poverty in the country. Many Christians criticise the Indonesian state for capitulating before religious violence, and not doing enough to uphold the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom.
The security forces are often accused of standing by and doing nothing when they see attacks by religious extremists. But, in spite of the conflict, liberal Muslim organisations and committed Christian leaders continue to promote inter-religious dialogue.
"Every year we hold a programme called Seminar of Religions," says Dr. Erick Barus of the Batak Community in Northern Sumatra. "We invite all the participants â€" multi-religious â€" and also we invite Muslim scholars."
They discuss how to improve relations between the religious communities and they have Muslim scholars teaching Christian pastors about Islam, dealing with issues like the meaning of jihad, or the Muslim attitude towards terrorism. "We need to learn more and more about the other religion," says Barus. "It`s important for democracy."
As well as these national initiatives, there are also activities that take place at the local level. In Central Java, for example, Christians visit Muslims to study the principles of Islam together. For a month, they live in pesantren, or Muslim boarding schools. Young Muslims and Christians also join together to carry out social and charitable volunteer work in the countryside. And cooperation with liberal Muslim groups and with the "Nadlathul Ulama" â€" the largest Muslim mass movement in the country â€" has improved considerably since the 1990s.
But Franz Magnis-Suseno, a German Jesuit who is a long-time Jakarta resident, says that while relations with the Muslim mass movements have improved and there`s plenty of dialogue going on, there are still problems. Some liberal Muslims speak out, he says, but other Muslims see them as so far on the margin that they don`t have much influence. In general, it`s the extremists who increasingly influential.
"Ever since the fall of President Suharto, extremist groups have been exploiting the country`s democratic freedom," he says. "They`ve been the ones who`ve been making all the noise in public, while the moderates tend to remain silent."


* Arian Fariborz is a writer and frequent contributor based in Germany. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

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