Proselytizing Creates Friction in Indonesia

Muslims resent efforts by relief workers to spread Christian faith

Fellows Fall 2005

By Michael Gartland

June 03, 2009

Entrance to the Grand Mosque in Banda Aceh

Entrance to the Grand Mosque in Banda Aceh

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia -- Among the acres and acres of fallen trees and mud stand a few skeletons of boards and bricks. Once these were homes. A year ago, families lived in them.

Now, they are only ruins. Across the road, soiled canvas tents dot rock-strewn clearings. New houses have gone up, but most people made homeless by the tsunami here either live in temporary barracks or tents.

Relatively speaking, Bukhari Nur is lucky. He was in his brick factory that morning when he felt the earthquake's first tremors. The quake knocked him and his bricks to the ground.

When the quake subsided, he rose and began picking up his bricks. Then, a few minutes later, he heard what sounded like three bombs exploding.

"We saw a few trucks taking people away," he said. "In the other brick factories, people were screaming 'Water! Water is coming!'?"

Nur ran a quarter mile to his mother's house in their village, Klieng Cot Aron. There, he packed her and his wife into a truck. He rode a scooter and met his family in a village 15 miles away. It was far enough to avoid the death the water brought with it.

Weeks later, he returned to his mother's house, which was damaged, but not destroyed, by the flood. He lives there now. His rebuilt brick factory, though not running at full capacity, provides building supplies to contractors working near his village, just northeast of Banda Aceh. Life could be worse, but Nur, 35, does have concerns about how reconstruction is going.

New homes don't go up fast enough, and jobs are scarce.

But there's something that worries him even more. Nur fears the newly arrived Westerners and their money will lead Muslims to convert from the faith of their ancestors to Christianity.

It's a fear that many here share, and one that has prompted Indonesians, both Christian and Muslim, to take stock of the motivations of foreign humanitarian groups.

"The negative thing is some organizations come with their religion," said Nur. "My life is already changed, but not my religion."

Many Indonesians, Nur included, take it as an insult that in their most desperate and weakest time, American Christians would try to seek converts. Not only do they view this as cynical, but they say it's against the law.

And they're right. The Indonesian government forbids people from attempting to convert others from one of the five religions traditionally recognized by the state: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. The government has not asked any faith-based relief groups to leave yet, but many survivors contend that enforcement of the law is lax because of a desire to keep foreign money and resources in the area.

After the tsunami, Nur said he took out a 75 million rupiah loan (about $7,500) from the Christian group Kreasi Social to rebuild the brick factory his grandfather willed to him. He appreciates their help, but objects to Kreasi workers distributing Christian pamphlets in and around his village.

"I'm afraid they will create a new conflict," he said. "With religion you cannot compromise with the Acehnese. . Maybe all of the villagers here will bring out all of their machetes and send them out."

Spreading the Word

Two days after the tsunami, Linda Siantury joined a relief group at her church in Medan. She helped refugees there.

Siantury was raised as a Christian, but her grandparents were not. They believed in Parmalim, the animist religion that ethnic Bataks followed for centuries. People's beliefs began to change after missionaries from Germany came to the Batak villages. Natives started converting.

Some Batak religious ceremonies remained almost totally intact, but in a Christian context. At weddings, instead of mentioning the mountains and the trees, Bataks invoke Jesus. Siantury, who's 28, believes this is how to spread Christianity in Aceh. "They still live together, the Batak and the Christians. The Germans, they used the Batak culture, they just changed the name," she said. "If we want to spread Christianity in Banda Aceh, we should use their culture. Even Jesus used the Jewish culture."

Siantury moved to Banda Aceh in April, four months after the tsunami hit. Her work rebuilding and helping train the Acehnese job skills is rewarding, she said, but often difficult. Some Muslims, the very observant, call her kafir - infidel - and refuse to make any physical contact with Christians. They believe their end goal is Kristenisasi - Christianization.

Siantury conceded that is, in fact, what she would like to see.

"What we are doing, training - that is also Christianization," she said. "We don't say it like that. We say, training."


Outside an inexpensive restaurant in Depok, mopeds buzzed by like bumblebees. Their pilots, most of them, were racing home to break the Ramadan fast. Inside, students huddled together at weak-legged tables and waited for the Arabic words to come over the radio, for the signal that they could finally eat. They'd all already ordered their food.

Depok was founded during colonial times by Dutch Christians who wanted to live outside the bustle and commerce of Jakarta. Now, it's known for its school, the University of Indonesia.

Aisyah Kamilah was waiting to eat her dinner along with the rest of the students. She once studied business administration at the university and is now an active member of FAKTA, a group that counsels people who have converted from Islam to other faiths. Members of FAKTA, which stands for the Forum for Anticipation of Christianization Activities, essentially try to persuade converts to return to Islam.

Kamilah is 25, but her full cheeks give her the look of a teenager. She became involved with FAKTA because she feels are increasingly converting to Christianity. Two of her Muslim friends have converted, and she now tries to counsel them.

"I've talked to them for three months. I'll meet with them until they come back to Islam," she said. "In the end, the women will choose the way of truth."

Kamilah believes Indonesia, with its secular government, should become an Islamic state. She feels that Aceh is the perfect example of spiritual conflict between Christians and Muslims. She hasn't visited there but is certain Christians doing relief work are concealing a hidden agenda. Like Islam, she said, Christianity is a preaching religion, one whose mission is, in part, seeking converts. As she sees it, in Aceh especially, converting Muslims is unacceptable.

"Missionaries are not innocent. They are fighting Muslims. They are very sinful. It's very clear that missionaries use unfair ways of converting," she said.

To Kamilah, this justifies what she calls shaheed bombing, or martyr bombing. She doesn't agree with some Muslims' practice of targeting innocent civilians, but holds that the situation in Aceh is different. "If the target is American missionaries, I agree with it," she said.

Cross to bear

Three months ago, in the town of Poso, on the island of Sulawesi, three Christian girls were beheaded. One of the heads was left in front of a church. Around the same time, conservative Muslim groups in Indonesia forced the closing of more than 30 churches throughout the archipelago. They maintained that the churches did not have the appropriate zoning permissions to operate.

Grace Sebastian is 25 and grew up in Bandung, on the island of Java. She's Christian and went to a mission school in Perth, Australia. Now, she works as an interpreter in Banda Aceh for the American faith-based group Samaritan's Purse. Out of respect for the Muslim laws that govern the province, she wears a head scarf. Around her neck hangs a cross.

Some Muslims here are offended by such shows of faith.

"Most Indonesians are understanding. Some, they'll take anything that looks Christian - like a cross - and they'll say we're trying to Christianize," she said. Sebastian stood in the doorway of a newly built house not far from Nur's brick factory and paused for a moment as the Muslim call to prayer sounded from a nearby mosque. Lightly, she held her cross between her thumb and forefinger.

"If you go to Java, this is not going to be a big thing," she said. "Here, it is a big thing."

It bothers her that in Indonesia, with all its religious diversity, she feels like a second-class citizen. Building new churches is the most obvious example of this. Because Muslims are a majority, Sebastian feels they have a much easier time navigating the process by which houses of worship are approved.

"They can build a mosque wherever they want," she said.

Aceh hasn't dealt with this particular issue much. The Indonesian government kept it closed off to outsiders for so long because of its armed conflict with the Free Aceh Movement. This has meant that during the past 30 years, relatively few Christians have visited or settled in Aceh, which is almost 100 percent Muslim.

"This is the first time for them to meet real Christians," she said. "They've been told their whole lives to hate Christians. This is the first time we can be here and show ourselves as Christians. It's a small step."


In the South Jakarta compound that houses members of the Indonesian Parliament, Nasir Djamil slowly readied himself for dinner with his family. Djamil is a member of Parliament from Aceh and was one of the first public officials to complain about Christian humanitarian groups proselytizing in his home province.

When he talks about Aceh, about reconstruction and Kristenisasi, he frowns and seems exhausted. For a year, it's almost all he's thought about. He's complained to the government officials in Aceh who are charged with enforcing the nation's laws against proselytizing but said nothing has been done to stop it.

"The government is very reluctant to talk about this issue. They are very afraid this issue will become public. They try to hide it in a very tight box," he said. "There isn't any other way. We just hope the help from outside is financial only. We have very limited resources."

Djamil himself was very reluctant to speak about what some Christian relief groups are doing in Aceh. He fears that money will disappear if groups are penalized for proselytizing. The prospect of extremist Muslim groups attacking relief workers is even worse.

Still, Djamil said he feels that what's going on will become increasingly hard to ignore as more conservative Muslim groups monitor what Christians do in Aceh.

"The government can't cover this up," he said. "It can be seen with the naked eye."