Indonesians are proud of the respect for pluralism and tolerance embedded in their constitution. Indeed, Indonesia is largely tolerant of religious differences. Unfortunately, it is not yet fully governed by its constitution.
Case in point: the continuing saga of GKI Yasmin church in Bogor, West Java.
In the early 2000s, a Protestant congregation in Bogor purchased a plot of land in the Taman Yasmin housing complex to build a church. They obtained the signatures from local residents as mandated by law, and in 2006, Bogor Mayor Diani Budiarto issued a building permit. Shortly thereafter, Islamist politics reared its head, lengthy legal battles ensued, and in April 2010, after the church was half-built, the mayor closed it.
More than a year ago, the Indonesian Supreme Court upheld the congregation’s right to hold services in the church. Yet the Bogor mayor still stands in the way, mocking the very concept of constitutionalism.
It is no wonder that under these circumstances, the conflict has moved beyond the church compound itself. Members of GKI Yasmin complain of regular harassment, even on the sidewalks and homes where they are forced to hold services. During one of several demonstrations of support by two visiting members of Indonesia’s House of Representatives, Eva Sundari and Lily Wahid (sister of the late former President and Muslim civil society leader Gus Dur), Muslim hard-line groups assaulted worshipers in the supermarket parking lot where they were holding service. Hard-liners have gone so far as to seek out the homes of congregation members being used for services.
Sundari, one of Indonesia’s brightest political lights and a passionate advocate for religious freedom, said it best when she said in response to the attack that accompanied her visit, “The GKI Yasmin case isn’t just about the church, but about national integrity and the rule of law.”
This is clearly more than a matter of building permits.
Last month, another young influential Indonesian leader, Ulil Abshar Abdallah, drew the obvious and stark contrast to the way a similar challenge to the American Constitution was handled in the 1950s. In his piece entitled “Eisenhower and Nine Black Students,” Ulil briefly recounts the context of America’s history with segregation and the significance of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education. He then turns to the events in Little Rock, 1957, when President Eisenhower “put his foot down” and sent in the U.S. Army to enforce the Supreme Court’s mandate. In an act of leadership “worthy of emulation,” Ulil says, Eisenhower demonstrated that the Constitution “must be upheld.” What Indonesia needs, he says, is an “Indonesian Eisenhower” who will make sure that the right of citizens to worship as promised in the Indonesian constitution is honored.
True to Indonesia’s tolerant image, most Christians there go about their spiritual business without incident. Reading stories of besieged Christian congregations from afar, a visitor to Jakarta at Christmas time might be surprised by the public wishes of “Merry Christmas” that festoon the busy streets or by the large sections of Christian literature featured by local bookstores.
Still, the stories are true, and they are much more common than many well-informed, well-meaning Indonesians believe.
The fact is that without the legal force of a constitution and its enforcement by the state, all of the official protestations in favor of religious liberty are empty rhetoric. The fundamental principle at stake in Bogor is actually not religious freedom per se but constitutional protection of it. Without that, the situation will only get worse.
Last week, in a speech to the Jakarta diplomatic corps, President Yudhoyono said his government is managing the Bogor church issue “through legal and non-legal approaches, and that the government keeps mediating, hoping for a solution in the near future.” Just yesterday, Mayor Diani repeated his answer to Yudhoyono’s non-legal approach. He rejected the offer of Indonesia’s former vice president and consummate peacemaker Jusuf Kalla to mediate a solution.
Ulil Abshar Abdalla’s dream of an Indonesian Eisenhower and reality have never been further apart.