Islamist hard-liners in Indonesia target Christians; government at a loss to respond

BEKASI, Indonesia – Days after rumors spread across this industrial city that Christians were conducting a mass baptism, hard-line Islamic leaders called for local mosques to create a youth guard to act as moral police and put a quick stop to forced conversions.

They started training early Saturday morning, around 100 young men turning out in a field in Bekasi wearing martial arts uniforms. Leaders stressed that there was no plan to arm them, but they do not shy away from saying they’ll act essentially as thugs.

“We’re doing this because we want to strike fear in the hearts of Christians who behave in such a way,” said Murhali Barda, who heads the local chapter of the Islamic Defenders Front, which pushes for the implementation of Islamic-based laws in Bekasi and other parts of the archipelagic nation. “If they refuse to stop what they’re doing, we’re ready to fight.”

Although this secular country, with more Muslims than any other in the world, has a long history of religious tolerance, a small extremist fringe – of which the front is the vanguard – has become more vocal in recent years as it tries to root out everything it considers blasphemous.

Though big, vice-filled cities, like Jakarta, traditionally have been easy targets, changing demographics have put areas like Bekasi, on the outskirts of the capital, in the hard-liners’ cross hairs. The shift reflects a greater problem in Indonesia, which is struggling to stamp out extremist movements without losing the support of moderates, who condemn violence but are sensitive to perceptions that the government is subservient to the West.

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 proselytization.

The front, known for smashing bars, attacking transvestites and going after minority sects with bamboo clubs and stones, is now leading a charge against Christians in the area.

A spate of attacks has rocked 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 symbolized the Holy Trinity.

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

In this context, it wasn’t surprising that when 14 busloads of villagers arrived last week at the Bekasi home of Henry Sutanto, who heads the Christian-run Mahanaim Foundation, rumors quickly spread that he and one of his colleagues, Andreas Sanau, 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.

But the front was not convinced. Video footage provided by the 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. His bespectacled face now appears on a banner – draped in front of a mosque – with a fiery noose around his neck and the words, “This man deserves the death penalty!”

“He should be executed!” said Barda, the local front leader. “He tried to carry out mass baptisms!”

It was just days later that Barda’s group joined nine others in taking the rare step of recommending at a local congress that Bekasi mosques help set up bands of youths to act as moral police and to intimidate Christians who are trying to convert Muslims.

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

But if Christians don’t want to listen, Barda warned, “we are ready to fight.”

Christian groups said the youths will only create fear, nervousness and unrest in the nation.

“The government must protect all citizens from anarchist action as mandated by the constitution,” said Priest Andreas Yewangoe, a chairman of the Communion of Indonesian Churches.

But the government so far is keeping mum. Though all these events occurred less than nine miles (15 kilometers) 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.

Opinion pages have filled with letters calling for the front to be banned. More than 5,000 people signed petitions on Facebook in their support.

But Arbi Sanit, a political analyst at the University of Indonesia, said politicians are more concerned about pleasing another constituency: Muslim parties in parliament, on whose support they depend heavily.

“I really see this as a threat to democracy,” said Arbi Sanit, a political analyst, noting leaders likely haven’t spoken out against the violence for fear of being perceived as “un-Islamic” by lawmakers, a reputation they can’t afford if they’re going to keep the Muslim parties with them.

“Being popular is more important to them than punishing those who are clearly breaking the law.”

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