Indonesian Unrest Important, But Not Religious

WASHINGTON—“Indonesia's future depends on all people upholding the principle of religious toleration and mutual respect,” according to Father Stanley DeBoe, director of the Center for Jewish and Christian Values.

At a Jan. 19 forum sponsored by the center, Father DeBoe and several human rights experts discussed recent religious violence in Indonesia. The consensus was that church and mosque burnings of the past year, while worrisome, were incited and manipulated by the Indonesian government.

Robert Seiple, U.S. ambassador-at-large-designate, said, “This is not a theological conflict. This is a social, economic, and political conflict.”

A severe economic crisis intensified in the Asian archipelago in early 1998. Extraordinary inflation, student demonstrations, rioting, and violence resulted. Churches and mosques were burned and Christians were attacked. On one day alone, Nov. 22, seven churches were burned and 15 were looted in Jakarta, the capital.

The unrest precipitated the resignation of Prime Minister Suharto, who had served since 1968. He was replaced by his vice president, Bacharuddin Jusuf Habibie.

Indonesia, the world's fourth most populous country, also has more Muslims than any other nation. While 85% of the people are Muslims, only about 3% are Catholics. Protestants, Hindus, and Buddhists are also recognized by the government.

The country practices a less fundamentalist form of Islam than is seen in the Middle East, but experts see political appeals to Islamic identity as potentially explosive. Many believe the beleaguered government has embraced such appeals.

According to the Robert Clarke, the State Department's Indonesia desk officer, “Many of the disturbances really come from people struggling with economic difficulties, looking around for the nearest scapegoat, and going after them.”

Seiple, who went to Indonesia on a fact-finding trip earlier this month, told the Register that the regime has incited this unrest. “Many of the issues that the government hasn't been able to fix are scapegoated along religious and ethnic lines.”

Long-standing ethnic tensions between Muslims and Chinese merchants have been exacerbated. Conflict also exists in East Timor, part of an island Indonesia annexed in 1976 and which is more than 85% Catholic.

Lynn Frederiksson of the East Timor Action Network sees the ongoing problem in East Timor, which has resulted in great civil strife, as another example of political manipulation, especially by the military.

“Economic ruin and political pressure” are the keys to Indonesian unrest,” Frederiksson said. “Mosque burnings were plotted to look like religious conflict.”

Attention is now being focused on the June 7 legislative elections, which should give some indication of the stability of democracy in Indonesia. According to Clarke, “We're looking forward to the elections in June. We think they're going to be a milestone.”

A presidential election is scheduled to follow later this fall. Seiple calls this year a key transition period, a “grand experiment” for the nation as it tries to balance democracy with a strong military presence. “In every democracy,” he said, “it's always the second election that's the key.”

Panel participants agreed that religious conflict was not a problem now. Seiple, the former head of World Vision, said, “Mainstream Christians and Muslims are very tolerant of one another.

But several expressed concern that continued national difficulties and incitement by the government and political parties could create true religious strife.

Seiple himself noted that the country's unemployment is expected to reach 60% by the time of the June elections. “My fear,” he said, “is that the recent tensions could manifest themselves along religious lines.”

Also citing a potential appeal to Muslim fundamentalism, T. Kumar of Amnesty International said, “When there is trouble, enough players will try to benefit from it.”

During an interview with the Register, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, president of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, stressed the need for vigilance. “The situation in Indonesia shows how fragile religious freedom is and how it could be abridged if it's manipulated,” he said.

Kumar suggested that tensions could ease if military and police power are curbed, the Anti-Blasphemy Law (prohibiting criticism of Islam) is reviewed, and the Baha'i Faith recognized.

Seiple also called for military reform. In addition, he said, “We need to pull all the stops to make sure the elections work.” This includes the United States providing classes and training for election watchers through its foreign aid program.

This meeting was part of a regular series of discussions on religious freedom around the world. The sponsor, the Center for Jewish and Christian Values, is the public policy office of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which was founded by Rabbi Eckstein in 1983. (Joseph Esposito)