Indonesia Christians Suffer for Religious Freedom

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JAKARTA, Indonesia - President Barack Obama praised Indonesia for its religious tolerance during his recent visit in Jakarta.

Still, many argue it's still difficult for Christians to flourish in the mainly Muslim country.

Extremist groups like the Islamic Defenders Front incite mob violence, force churches to close and push for the arrest of church officials and evangelists.

Last Christmas, Filadelfia Batak Christian Protestant Church, was the victim of one of those attacks. A mob gathered at a local mosque, then tried to prevent Christians from meeting at their newly built church.

Pastor Palty, the church's leader, said the mob grew to about 1,500.

"Some threw stones and were shouting 'allahu akbar' (god is great), others were calling us kaffirs (infidels) and pigs and yelling obscenities," he recalled. "Some carried sticks and others shouted 'Burn the church, close it down!'"

Local officials closed the church building in January. Since then, Christians have worshipped outside every Sunday in front of the church gate.

Angry Muslims often place cow manure, broken glass, and dead rats in the street in hopes of deterring worship attendance.

Unable to Build

The Indonesian constitution guarantees religious liberty, but Christians say they experience less freedom than the Muslim majority. Mosques are being built, but few new churches are allowed for a growing Christian population.

In 2006, the Indonesian Ministry of Religion issued a national decree designed to halt the growth of house churches in the country. The declaration required religious groups with 90 members or more to get support from at least 60 neighbors before they could get permission to "build or expand a religious venue."

Many churches meet the requirements, but as Pastor Palty's congregation has experienced, government permission doesn't happen.

The Dangers of Leaving Islam

CBN News spoke with Rahmat, Lydia, and Cornelius -- three former Muslims who are now Christians in Indonesia. Their identities have been obscured because each have suffered persecution at the hands of family members or government officials.

Rahmat came to Christ while in prison. After a Bible was discovered in his prison cell, Rahmat said he was tortured - forced to stand naked in the prison yard and salute the Indonesian flag while balancing a Bible on his head. When the Bible fell, he was tortured again and a page of the Bible was shoved into his mouth.

Rahmat said he was then sent without clothes to a small isolation cell where he had to endure mosquito bites and frigid temperatures.

"I cried out to the Lord, 'please God, help me endure this trial that You have given me by returning my clothes,'" Rahmat recalled.

A prison guard returned his clothes the following day. Rahmat said his faith remained strong.

Weeks later as Rahmat was released from prison, the warden asked if he was a Muslim or a Christian.

"I told him when I first came to the prison I was a Muslim learning about Christianity," Rahmat said. "Now as I leave here I am convinced I am a Christian."

Lydia, a mother of six, endured brutal beatings from her Muslim husband after converting to Christianity. She said the assaults often occurred in front of their children.

One Sunday after Lydia's husband discovered she'd attended church, he approached her with his lit cigarette.

"He told me 'Your religion will take you to hell, so you will feel the fire, how about you feel this?'" Lydia recalled. Her husband then pulled her head back and flicked a hot ash into her right eye.

Attacks like that continued and her husband eventually forced her and the children out of the house.

The Voice of the Martyrs Australia helped Lydia find housing and provided her with seed money to start a business.

Muslim family members also kicked Cornelius out of his house when they discovered he'd become a Christian. He says he escaped death when his cousin attempted to run him over with a motorcycle.

"I later called my cousin on the phone and said I forgave you for trying to kill me," Cornelius said. "He said I was an infidel and he told me to never phone him again."

Cornelius is now sharing his faith with others and often shows "The Jesus Film" to Muslim teens.

In Spite of It All

The new believers and the Indonesian church continue to grow in faith and size, despite the militant attempts to destroy the movement.

"Before we had this problem, believers seldom came to church, but when the persecution came, they got incentive to come to church and pray and gather together in unity," Palty said.

"My congregation has a commitment to keep doing the service because the church is not a building, the church is the believers," he added.

They're asking God to create a more tolerant society, one where they are better protected from extremist violence.

In the meantime, Indonesia's Christians will continue to gather in apartments, small house churches and even in the streets despite the risk.

--Originally published November 12, 2010

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