Attack on Indonesian Catholics Stokes Fears of Religious Intolerance As Election Nears

By Patrick Goodenough | June 2, 2014 | 4:19am EDT

President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama are shown around Jakarta’s Istiqlal Mosque by Grand Imam Ali Mustafa Yaqub on Nov. 10, 2010. The world’s biggest Muslim country holds presidential elections next month. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

( – An attack by Muslim extremists on a group of Indonesian Catholics holding a home prayer meeting has stoked concerns about religious intolerance ahead of next month’s presidential election in the world’s most populous Muslim nation.

Catholic organizations have urged police to carry out a prompt and effective investigation into the attack Thursday night, when dozens of men in robes, carrying what were described as “bladed weapons,” attacked the home in central Java, Indonesia’s main island, where members of a local parish were meeting to pray.

The owner of the house and six other people were assaulted and injured, along with was a neighboring journalist who tried to take photographs of the incident.

The journalist, Michael Irawan, said later the attackers had identified themselves as followers of a notorious Islamist militant, Jafar Umar Thalib.

“They warned that if any such activities were conducted here again, they would be back,” the Jakarta Globe quoted him as saying.

Thalib was formerly leader of Laskar Jihad, a Java-based militia that was heavily involved in a campaign of violence targeting minority Christians in Maluku province in 1999-2002. The group was subsequently reported to have been disbanded.

A police spokeswoman in the Yogyakarta region of Java where Thursday’s attack took place, Anny Pujiastuti, told the Indonesian Tempo news service security had been tightened in the area and that a suspect was in custody. Others were being pursued, she said.

An official with Indonesia’s National Commission for Human Rights urged the police to resolve the case quickly, warning that religious intolerance could be exploited to influence the presidential election scheduled for July 9.

Already concerns have been raised about the religion issue in relation to the election campaign.

Indonesia’s 187 million registered voters have two very different choices on the ballot to succeed outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Indonesian presidential candidate Joko Widodo talks with his supporters during a campaign event in Jakarta on Sunday, March 16, 2014. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)

Joko Widodo, the popular and high profile governor of Jakarta, was listed by Fortune magazine this year as one of “the world’s 50 greatest leaders.” Described as a moderate Muslim, the 52-year-old won plaudits for cracking down on corruption during an earlier stint as mayor of a midsized city.

His challenger, 61-year-old Prabowo Subianto, was a senior military officer during the tenure of the autocratic Gen. Suharto – to whom he was also related by marriage.

According to the State Department, Prabowo once admitted ordering the abduction and torture of nine pro-democracy activists during rioting and protests that occurred around the time of Suharto’s downfall in 1998. In 2000 he was denied entry into the U.S.

Widodo was comfortably ahead in the opinion polls but has seen his lead narrow in recent months. In parliamentary elections in April, Widodo’s Democratic Party of Struggle won, but with an unexpectedly low 19 percent of the popular vote, while Prabowo’s Great Indonesia Movement Party (Gerindra) made significant gains to take 12 percent.

While Prabowo’s military past has dogged his campaign, as the presidential election draws nearer his camp’s position on religious issues is also beginning to set off alarm bells.

Prabowo Subianto, a former Suharto-era army general, is mounting a strong challenge for Indonesia’s presidency in the July 9 election. (AP Photo)

Although he says he is committed to minority rights in a country where 87 percent of the population is Muslim, his Gerindra party’s manifesto also refers to the importance of safeguarding “religious purity.”

(On foreign policy, Gerindra’s platform is dismissive of the notion that the U.S. is the world’s sole superpower since the end of the Cold War. It says Indonesia must play a role in the new international era, pointing to the importance of the European Union, China, Russia – who under President Vladimir Putin has “restored Russian military and economic power” – and left-wing Latin American countries that “dare to determine their own path which is often contrary to American foreign policy.”)

Prabowo’s vice-presidential running mate, Hatta Rajasa, last week made a bid for support from the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), a radical group that has been linked to the forced closure of churches and raids on premises where gambling takes place and liquor is sold.

FPI is also known for threats against American and other Westerners, and during the Iraq war it claimed to have signed up hundreds of volunteers to fight against the U.S. forces there.

‘A growing culture of religious extremism and intolerance’

Another key issue for FPI is its hostility towards Ahmadis (Ahmadiyya), adherents of a Muslim sect considered heretical by mainstream Islam. (A Pakistani-American doctor was shot dead in Pakistan last week, in an attack believed linked to his Ahmadi faith.)

According to the Jakarta Globe the FPI has already tentatively thrown its support behind the  Prabowo campaign but in return wants firm action against Ahmadis.

It said FPI’s leader told followers on May 24 that FPI would endorse Prabowo on the spot if he agreed to disband the Ahmadi sect.

If he can commit to defending Islam, then the FPI will instantly declare its support for him,” Rizieq Shihab said, promising to mobilize his members “to campaign on behalf of Prabowo and Hatta.”

According to the Wahid Institute, a non-governmental organization that advocates for religious tolerance, FPI was one of the most egregious violators of religious freedom in Indonesia last year.

During a 2010 visit President Obama, who spent several years in Indonesia as a boy, praised the country’s religious diversity and tolerance, saying it was a nation where “people choose to worship God as they please. Islam flourishes, but so do other faiths.”

But in a detailed report earlier this year the advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide said Indonesia’s tradition of pluralism and religious tolerance is under threat, with Ahmadis, Shi’a, Christians, Buddhists, Baha’is and others facing difficulties.

“A growing culture of religious extremism and intolerance has arisen in recent years, resulting in violent attacks on religious minorities, forcible closure of churches and the displacement of Ahmadiyya and Shi’a Muslims at the hands of Sunni fanatics.”

The report attributed the rise in intolerance to a spread of extremist Islamist ideology; inaction or complicity of authorities; discriminatory laws and regulations; weak law enforcement; and an unwillingness by most Indonesian Muslims to speak out against intolerance.

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