Indonesia church row raises fears of sectarian conflict

Christians in Bekasi hold a mass, guarded by police - September 2010 Police are out in full force for the weekly mass in Bekasi

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These days there is a heavy police presence in Bekasi, a fast-growing suburb about an hour outside the capital Jakarta.

Every Sunday, officers gather here and are given orders by their superiors to guard against any sign of violence.

For the last few weeks, a group of Christians have been holding their Sunday prayer services on an empty plot of land - resulting in violent clashes between them and the majority Muslims.

On Sunday, a church member was stabbed in what some are calling the latest example of religious intolerance. It's not clear who is behind the stabbing.

The Christians say the land belongs to them, and they were given permission by the local government to pray here.

The Muslims say that according to Indonesian law, the Christians need to get the approval of residents in the area before they can make the land a place of worship.

They have even put up signs warning what will happen if the Christians continue to pray here on Sundays.

Start Quote

"If there is violence that results from this, then the Christians only have themselves to blame.”

End Quote Murhali Barda Islamic Defenders' Front

"Stop these illegal prayers right now, or the public will take action," one reads.

Another proclaims, "The people of Bekasi reject the construction of a church on this land."

Rising tensions

There has not always been this sort of deep suspicion between Muslims and Christians in Bekasi.

Like much of Indonesia, it is an area dominated by Muslims but the two faiths live side by side.

Risomas is from the Christian minority but has never felt out of place.

But this religious quarrel is threatening to rip the community apart.

"They are very narrow-minded," she tells me as we sit down in her home, decorated with images of Jesus Christ.

"I don't know how they see God. I feel that my God protects me but they seem to think that they need to defend their God. I guess that's the difference between us."

But on the other side of Bekasi, I hear a radically different interpretation of events.

Khairul Fuad, a long-time resident, is a devout Muslim, and a family man.

Women at prayer for Eid festival, Jakarta - 10 September 2010 Muslims are the majority in Indonesia, but the constitution guarantees freedom of religion

He says their peaceful lives have been disturbed by the Christians' insistence on using the empty plot of land in Bekasi as a place of worship.

"The non-Muslims should understand the feeling of the Muslims here. We are the majority here," he says.

"The land belong to us, and the majority of the people who live around it are Muslims. There was a rumour that to get that land, those Christians didn't tell the people they wanted to build a place of worship."

Murhali Barda, the local leader of the hardline Islamic Defenders' Front, has taken up the Muslims' cause.

The Christians believe the group is behind the clashes in the area, inciting hostility between the two communities.

"There is no problem with praying. But when they are there with a mission to build a place of worship, it is unacceptable," he told me as he showed me around Bekasi's oldest mosque.

I asked him what he would do if the Christians paid no attention to his warning.

"If we start calling for Holy War, it doesn't matter if we live or die," he said, smiling. "If there is violence that results from this, then the Christians only have themselves to blame."

'Democratic response'

The problems in Bekasi have caught the attention of the entire nation.

Start Quote

If the government cannot solve the problem near the capital city, how can it solve the problem outside of Java?" ”

End Quote Bonar Naipospos Setara Institute

In Jakarta, Indonesians of different faiths joined forces, raising their voices in unison in support of a more secular Indonesia.

The constitution guarantees the rights of citizens to practise their religion freely.

The protesters say they want their government to take action and uphold the principles of this country.

In an interview with the BBC, the Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalagewa told me authorities are not shirking their responsibilities.

"I don't think we lack any political will," he said. "I don't think we lack resolve. On the contrary, we are doing what we can.

"But we must do these things in a democratic way. It must be a democratic response as well. There's a fine balance, in ensuring that everyone's civil liberties are upheld."

But the concern is if the government is too slow to act, this local problem could become a national issue.

Local brawl, national nightmare?

Ten years ago, Indonesia stood on the brink of a religious war. A local brawl between Christians and Muslims in the Maluku islands threatened to split the country apart.

Christians and Muslims clash after Sunday worship, Bekasi - September 2010 The clashes in Bekasi are threatening to tear the community apart

Thousands died in the violence. Troops were called in to quell the unrest, which took years to resolve.

Bonar Naipospos, vice-chairman of the Setara Institute, which works to promote democracy and peace, has been documenting cases of religious conflict across Indonesia.

There were far more attacks on churches and religious minorities in the first six months of this year than in the last two years, he says.

"This has happened in the greater area of Jakarta," Bonar tells me. "If the government cannot solve the problem near the capital city, how can it solve the problem outside of Java?"

Back in Bekasi, the congregation has held yet another Sunday service on their land.

The police are out in full force, standing guard. But this is not a permanent solution.

Indonesia must find a way to ensure that its minorities can worship without fear, or else this ongoing local brawl could turn into a national nightmare.

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