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30 June 2010

Christians seek forum to defuse tensions

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Christian leaders and activists in Bekasi have called on local Muslim groups to engage in talks to resolve inter-religious tensions that have recently threatened to boil over, according to the Jakarta Post

Albert Siagian, the secretary-general for the Christian Youth Movement of Indonesia, said recent disputes between Muslims and Christians were rooted in a lack of mutual understanding and tolerance between the groups.

“Many Muslims, for example, will perhaps question why Christians include singing as their rituals or why they are allowed to hold mass at their houses,” said Albert, who lives in Harapan Jaya.

Albert said the small disputes that have recently broken out could worsen if local religious leaders failed to bridge their differences.

Rapid development in residential and industrial estates has turned Bekasi, a satellite town that lies to the east of Jakarta, into a culturally and religiously diverse city. A number of conflicts have stemmed from disputes over churches built by Christian congregations that Muslim groups claimed were not permitted.

On Sunday, a group of hard-line Muslim organizations officially demanded the local administrations implement Islamic sharia law, a move they described as a response to the “ongoing attempt to convert locals to Christianity”.

The accusation was referring to Christian prayer services, some of which are held outdoors, that have led some to suspect they are attempts to convert Muslims to Christianity. Theophilus Bela, chairman of the Communication Forum for Jakarta’s Christians, strongly denied the allegation, saying that Christians in the area had been pressured to stop their services by hard-line Muslim groups.

Theophilus, who is a resident of Pondok Gede, Bekasi, said there were not enough churches in the area to accommodate all Christians in the municipality, and that it was therefore normal for church congregations to propose the establishment of new churches.

“Most of the time, local residents have ended up misinterpreting [efforts to establish new churches] as attempts to impose Christianity [on them],” he said.

Last week, a group of local Muslims raided a baptism ceremony at a house in the upscale Kemang Pratama Regency estate.

A group of Muslim residents said they had become suspicious after seeing hundreds of people — some of them wearing veils — arriving by bus and entering a house belonging to a Christian social foundation.

The spat ended when police arrested the home owners and ordered the people who had come to the house — many from areas outside of Jakarta — to go home.

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