By BosNewsLife Asia Service with BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
JAKARTA, INDONESIA (BosNewsLife)-- Christians in Indonesia fear that new religious legislation will force them to seek government approval before holding Sunday schools or confirmation classes.
Under the proposed bill these classes can only be offered if there are at least 15 participants and the organizer has the approval of the Religious Affairs Ministry reported the Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN) agency.
The "Islamic boarding schools and religious education” law reportedly is aimed at regulating how schools, and also religious institutions like churches, teach religion and the government’s involvement in financing and supporting it.
“The main responsibility of the state is to protect, to ensure that every religion can propagate their activities and not regulate and restrict them,” said Vinsensius Darmin Mbula, a priest from the Education Commission at the Indonesian bishops’ conference.
"It limits Christians in conducting important and inseparable parts of religious activities," he was quoted as saying by
ucanews.com. The law was expected to be adopted next year.
Ace Hasan Syadzily, a lawmaker who co-authored the draft law, cautioned the draftees were open to input, especially religious organizations. "We want to schedule meetings with representatives from each religion, including Catholics and Protestants," he told UCAN's website ucanews.com. "The main responsibility of the state is to protect, to ensure that every religion can propagate their activities and not regulate and restrict them," he added.
But Vinsensius Darmin Mbula, the priest who is also chairman of the Indonesian Catholics Education Council, warned that the law could potentially be used by hard-line groups to attack Christians. "It will be used by intolerant groups to justify banning activities they will claim are not by the law's provision," he explained.
It was not immediately clear whether the law would also impact house churches, that Christians organize across Indonesia especially in areas where authorities refuse to allow the construction of church buildings.
Gomar Gultom, general secretary of the Indonesian Communion of Churches, said Sunday schools and catechesis are informal education activities so should not be regulated and treated as formal education. "Both are part of the church services for children and teenagers, and which are part of our worship."
Juventus Prima Yoris Kagoo, chairman of the Indonesia Catholic Students Association, said he supported the government's focus on religious education but said the law intervenes in Christian life. "The government should limit itself to [regulate only] regular schools. For informal activities such as Sunday schools, let the churches apply their standards," he told ucanews.com.
Christian leaders view these developments in the latest attempt by the government to halt the spread of Christianity in what is the world's largest Muslim country. Millions of Indonesians are becoming Christians, often secretly as militants continue to kill devoted believers, BosNewsLife reported recently.
Muslims account for roughly 87 percent of Indonesia’s 260 million people, said the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), citing government estimates from 2010.
In reality at least three to four million Christians "turned to Christ" over the past year, but the government refuses to recognize this trend in the world's largest Muslim nation, said Christian officials with close knowledge about the situation.
Additionally, Christians and other minorities face new allegations of blasphemy against Islam. In one of the latest developments, a woman in North Sumatra lost her appeal at the High Court against her blasphemy conviction. Meliana, a mother-of-two, will have to serve an 18-month prison sentence in Medan after she complained about the noise levels of a local mosque’s loudspeakers.
Advocacy group Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) complained that police Islamists pressured them into taking her case to court. “The imprisonment of Meliana is a grave miscarriage of justice, and exposes the blatant misuse of the blasphemy laws,” said CSW representative Benedict Rogers. “Intolerance in Indonesia is increasing in many ways, and Indonesia’s tradition of pluralism is in grave peril.”
It comes while Christians told BosNewsLife that they are worried about the growing influence of Islamic extremists in politics and society, following the conviction last year of Jakarta’s former governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as “Ahok,” for blasphemy.
"The case with the governor shows that being a Christian can undermine your career in Indonesia today,” a dedicated Christian woman and church worker told BosNewsLife. “That is perhaps why many Christians may even remain Muslim on paper,” she added referring to religious preferences on identity cards and other documents.
World Watch Monitor, the news agency of the Open Doors advocacy group, confirmed that the case had sparked protests. "Large protests held against Ahok during his trial were found by the Indonesian Survey Institute to have sparked a more intolerant attitude in society generally."
Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who won the elections of July 2014 on a platform of renewal, has been criticized for not doing enough to tackle religious intolerance following church bombings and other ant-Christian attacks that have killed at least dozens of people in recent years.