- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 28, 2005

A court case involving three Indonesian housewives who have been jailed for offering Sunday school lessons to Muslim children of prostitutes in west Java has global significance for anyone who wishes to convert.

Shariah, or Islamic law, demands the death penalty on those who do, based on a saying of Muhammad: “Whoever changes his Islamic religion, then kill him.”

Enforcement of this rule varies widely. A few Islamic societies merely shun the convert; others remove all civil liberties from the apostates; their children are taken away, their marriages dissolved, their family inheritance lost and their right to burial in a Muslim graveyard removed.

In Iran, Hamid Pourmand, a lay leader in the Assemblies of God church and an Iranian army colonel, was imprisoned in February for having converted to Christianity 25 years ago. One son has since fled the country; his wife and younger son have been evicted from their home and both are destitute in Tehran while Mr. Pourmand serves out a three-year sentence.

Hindus in India have passed anti-conversion laws in response to conversions to Christianity and other religions by untouchables. The state of Gujarat threatens to fine and/or imprison anyone who intentionally or unintentionally converts another.

The parliament in Sri Lanka, which is 69 percent Buddhist, is considering an anti-conversion bill that carries a 5-to-7-year sentence for those whose actions, whether intentional or unintentional, influence a religious conversion.

Christianizing children

When three Christian housewives living in a fundamentalist Islamic area about a three-hour drive west of Jakarta were accused of indoctrinating Muslim children, the community erupted in rage.

Their court case has been in process since June, simultaneous with the forced closings of 60 churches in central and west Java in the past year by radical Muslim groups. Thirty churches were closed in the past month.

Former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid has become involved, siding with the Christians. Known for his religious tolerance, Mr. Wahid chairs an Islamic group, Nadhlatul Ulama.

“The matter should be investigated more thoroughly, so that innocent people are not sacrificed,” he said in a May 26 letter to Kepada Yth, police chief of the Indramayu district, where the women were arrested.

To date, his letter has had little or no effect.

The Indramayu district, in which the dispute began, is known as a center for prostitution in Java and the site of the Zaitun Islamic Boarding School, the largest Islamic madrassa in Southeast Asia.

Even there, a federal law was in effect mandating that public schools provide religious instruction for children of non-Muslims. When officials from a public school in mid-2003 asked three Christian women in the sub-district of Harguelis to teach the rudiments of Christianity to the few Christian children in the area, they complied.

‘Happy Week’

The women — Dr. Rebecca Laonita Amdari, 47, a Chinese physician and pastor; Ratna Malabangun, 39; and Ety Pangesti, 43, the latter two Javanese — all belonged to the evangelical, charismatic Church of the Tabernacle of David, also known as the Gereja Kristen Kemah Daud (GKKD).

Their ministry, called “Happy Week,” met in Dr. Amdari’s home starting Sept. 9, 2003, drawing 14 Christian children and 10 Muslim children. Several of the young people were children of prostitutes and thus were either under the care of a grandparent or had little or no supervision. The three women gave T-shirts, books and food to the children and taught some of the older ones how to read.

But when some of the Muslim children began to sing Christian songs at home, this attracted the attention of the local branch of the MUI (Majelis Ulama Indonesia), the Indonesian Council of Muslim Clerics. They told the church to close the school Dec. 24, 2004.

Instead, it was moved to another home, and this past March, the children were taken to Mini Indonesia, a theme park, with several parents as escorts.

Again, one of the Muslim parents complained and MUI charged the women with heresy and Christianization. The Happy Week ministry was shut down April 14 and the women were jailed May 16.

They were charged with violating the country’s 2002 child-protection law that forbids “deception, lies or enticement” to cause a child to convert to another religion.

This case, charging Christians with the criminal act of Christianizing children, is a first for Indonesia.

“The churches around the country are terrified at the outcome of this trial,” said Jeff Hammond, the Australian founder of Bless Indonesia Today, a Christian foundation operating out of Jakarta. “If the ladies are found guilty, then any Christian worker that has a Muslim child — even with parental permission — attending a Sunday school or a church picnic, outing or even if they just give cookies to a Muslim child, they could be arrested with enticement to convert.”

None of the children had changed their religion as a result of the Sunday school. However, on the first day of the trial on June 30, Mr. Hammond said, 150 young men carrying banners from a group known as Laskar Izzul Islam crowded into the courtroom, shouting “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”) for 30 minutes and holding banners with slogans such as “Totally Wipe Out the Apostasizers.”

A bigger crowd showed up July 7 when some of the children, ages 10-12, were brought in to testify, said Mr. Hammond, who attended the hearings. Children were brought in through screaming mobs.

“Clearly, they were terrified,” said Mr. Hammond. “One child was almost hysterical; others were crying. The fear, trauma and intimidation were so obvious that Judge Hasby asked for the children to be take outside, calmed down and then to be brought in one by one, accompanied by a parent.”

The children said they were given no money, but were asked to become Christians and were taken on field trips. All had been asked to get parental permission to be in the Sunday school. Those who had not were asked to withdraw.

Criminalizing conversion

“We are aware of this case,” said a spokeswoman for the Indonesian Embassy, who asked not to be named, “but the only information we’ve found on it are from American Web sites.”

However, the July 28 issue of the Jakarta Post mentioned the trial in an article about MUI’s efforts to keep any churches from opening in heavily Muslim areas.

“We are proud to report that there is not one single church in [the district of] Cilegon to this day. And this is how we intend to keep it,” the newspaper quoted one MUI group as saying.

The Becket Fund, a nonpartisan interfaith public-interest law firm based in Washington, said the growing number of anti-conversion laws worldwide are undermining the efforts of faith-based aid groups seeking to respond to damage wrought by the Dec. 26 tsunami and the more recent monsoon rains in Southeast Asia.

“The chilling effect of Sri Lanka’s proposed anti-conversion laws, India’s laws, and similar efforts to criminalize Christianity and faith-based relief efforts in Southeast Asia will inevitably cut off the very lifeline that sustains the growth and redevelopment of the region,” said Jared N. Leland, media and legal counsel for the fund, which is dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions.

According to an article on the trial in the July 25 London Times, 10,000 Christians were killed in Indonesia between 1998 and 2003, mostly in central Sulawesi and the eastern Maluku islands, 700,000 forced to flee villages in those areas and 1,000 churches were burned by Muslim mobs.

Of Indonesia’s 210 million inhabitants, 88 percent of Muslim, 8 percent Christian, 2 percent Hindu and 1 percent Buddhist.

The trial, which has hearings only on Thursdays, is set to end by mid-September. The prosecution, which rested its case Aug. 11, wants the women imprisoned for three years and fined 1.5 million rupiah, about $170.

The Rev. Eduar Moniyong, moderator of the GKKD churches in Indonesia, issued a statement Aug. 14 saying the case “represents an evil precedent for all Christians in Indonesia.”

Not only were court officials and the judge terrorized by the militants, he said, rendering a just verdict impossible, but the three teachers were guilty of acts of kindness toward some obviously extremely poor children, not a desire to convert.

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