In the previous blog “The Uniqueness of Islam in Indonesia,” we concluded that although Indonesia has the largest population of Muslims, it is not an Islamic country. This is seen in Indonesia’s constitution which rejects the implementation of Islamic Sharia. However, an exception applies to a special region in the northern part of the island of Sumatra. This region implemented Sharia after it was granted a special autonomy in 2001. Since then, many Sharia-based ordinances have been added to the region’s constitution.
Many of these Sharia ordinances prohibit practices that are regarded as immoral, including gambling, immodest dressing, consuming and selling alcohol, adultery, pre-marital sex, and homosexuality. Besides monetary fines and time spent in prison, these crimes are also punishable by public caning. While the region’s authorities believe Sharia needs to be enforced in order “to safeguard human dignity” and “to protect the region’s Muslims from committing immoral acts,” the Sharia authorities themselves often misuse their positions to perform immoral acts. There are even cases of authorities raping women while on duty.
Since Islamic Sharia was enforced in this region, religious tolerance toward non-Muslims has gradually diminished. In recent years, religious non-tolerance includes destruction of church buildings, prohibition of Christmas celebration, pressure to convert to Islam, and persecution toward Muslim-background believers and Christians.
What is happening in this region shows us the difference between a religion based on rule-following and a religion based on the redemptive work of Christ. In Matthew 15 and 16, Jesus condemns the Pharisees for being prideful in their obedience to the Law. Any obedience to the Law when done apart from faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is not pleasing to God.
In order to learn more about Islamic Sharia in Indonesia, I interviewed two believers who currently live in this region. While it is helpful to gain knowledge from trustworthy media, an insider’s knowledge will give us a more accurate picture of life in this region. Below is our conversation:
What are some concerns of the Christians there?
There have been some dangerous attacks on churches which have not been registered with the local government. One of the scariest things we have seen was when a mob formed outside of a church, and the local police did not get involved. Other concerns are also practical. Sometimes, we are not allowed to rent a particular house just because of our faith. Our neighbors are not comfortable visiting our home, and only on a few occasions have our neighbors invited us to their homes. I have even received death threats while living in this region. The government has made it difficult for some of our friends to get employment and other legal paperwork approved.
Some Christians are bullied at work, and some will never get job promotions simply because they are not Muslims. In one case, a teacher was asked to quit his job because he was the only Christian teacher in the entire history of the school. He was not allowed to teach for six months, and the school sent policemen to interrogate him twice with the hopes that he would ask for a job transfer.
What is the situation of radical Islam there?
In this area, Islam is not radical in a way that you see in the news, but more in a way that the religion is so intertwined in the fabric of society that it almost feels impossible for people to leave Islam. Muslims here are very proud of their faith. Many people have never heard of Jesus, while others have only heard the Islamic version of him. Islam here is also influenced by the tradition of animism that flourished in the region before Islam entered the province.
FPI (Islam Defenders Front), a Muslim organization in Indonesia that is well-known for being the most radical in the country, has recently begun to have a significant influence in the province. This organization strives to implement Islamic Sharia throughout Indonesia and presents a major hindrance towards the tolerance of religion in Indonesia.
Here people say “Islam is peace,” but some of the sermons from the mosques, which can be heard publicly, promote hate toward non-Muslims. Additionally, if Muslims try to leave Islam, they sometimes disappear or are sent to a “pesantren,” an Islamic boarding school, until they convert back to Islam. Since only very few locals can actually understand the Qur’an, they place their complete trust in their religious teachers and do not question their authority.
The local newspaper is very biased toward Islam and never shows any other viewpoints. The newspaper lists the names of all the people who are “mu’allaf,” people who have converted to Islam, as one way to promote the Islamic faith. Those who are “murtad,” people who have abandoned Islam, either have to leave the province or convert back to Islam. A professor from one Muslim university was demoted and almost fired from her job after taking her comparative religion class to a church. She had to flee the province until things cooled down. Christians are often referred to as “kafir,” someone who does not hold to the “true” religion.
How does it feel to be a woman living there? What are some of the challenges?
Being a single woman in this area is very difficult because locals often try to set up their single friend with a Muslim man, even after she has told them multiple times that she is a follower of Jesus and is not interested. Due to the constant questioning about her singleness, one Christian worker eventually moved to a different city where there were more single believers.
Do you present your identity as a Christian?
Yes, I do. I usually present my identity as a follower of Isa Al Masih, which means Jesus Christ in Arabic. I try to be contextual most of the time without compromising the truth. I must make it clear that I am not a Muslim. Even when I lived in a rural area and wore a hijab, a head covering usually worn by Muslim women, everyone knew I was a follower of Jesus. We do not use the word “Christian” very often because there are many misconceptions about what the word means. Some people connect it with the religion of the colonizers. Indonesia used to be colonized by several countries including England and Holland. Therefore, we use “a follower of Isa” to refer to a true believer in Christ.
What are your observations on God’s works there?
People are striving to do God’s works here. Unfortunately, it is quite common for both Indonesian and foreign workers to be taken advantage of by locals. For example, some locals have professed the Christian faith even to the point of baptism, but later on, the workers discover that the converts were taking advantage of their relationship for financial gain.
Since proselytizing is not allowed in the region, we only share the Good News if the locals start the conversation. Many unregistered churches in the area have the desire to do God’s work, but they often do not contextualize the Gospel. To make matters worse, there have been conflicts between government-recognized churches and unregistered churches.
Many Christian Indonesian organizations have been in the area for a long time, but not many of the workers from these organizations are supported by the local Christians or churches in the region. Most of these workers come from outside of the province. Many of the government-recognized churches in the area do not send or support workers from their own congregation. In fact, many are reluctant to minister to Muslims.
As far as I know, there are still two, perhaps three people groups in the province that do not have any people dedicated to reaching them. Many people have labored for years and have not seen much fruit. Many of those who have come to faith have left the province and now minister in other areas in Indonesia because of the persecution they face in their hometown.
What is it like to raise children there? What are some of the challenges?
For those who do not live in the capital city or in areas influenced by the Christian faith, children are forced to attend public schools where Christianity is not taught. Therefore, the children are required to take a class on Islam where they recite the Qur’an.
In the capital city, there are some private Christian schools; however, due to the high tuition, some Christian parents can only send their children to public school. To help these students learn more about their faith, Christian volunteers teach a class about Christianity once a week on Fridays during the Muslim’s prayer time. Sadly, many of the Christian students attending public school face persecution. They are often pressured by both fellow students and teachers to become Muslims.
What are some of the blessings of living there?
In one way, being surrounded by Muslims makes it easier for us to interact with non-believers in other places. A believer who has spent a considerable amount of time in a Christian environment, usually finds it uncomfortable being among non-believers. Also, since religion is such a major part of the culture here, locals are much more open to discussing religion compared to those in the West. We are blessed to proclaim the Gospel to those living around us.
We are also blessed to be able to encourage downtrodden Christians who moved here for work purposes or who have lived here since birth. We enjoy teaching their children once a week about Christianity and encouraging them to be bold in their faith. We also have a tight-knit community of several families, which has formed our local church.
How can the global church pray for you?
Please pray for believers who have been living here for a long time because often times they feel burned out. Pray the Holy Spirit would refresh our souls for perseverance and joy.
Pray God would give us wisdom in how much time we should invest in the local churches and the unreached. We need wisdom on how to help the local churches catch a vision for reaching the people around them. Pray for people who will carry the Gospel to their own peoples in their own languages.
Pray for unity among Christian organizations and local churches in the area.
Pray God will lead us to people with receptive hearts who are open to hear the Gospel and will stand steadfast regardless of whatever persecution they might face for the sake of the Gospel.
Abigail Love was born and raised in Indonesia and is currently pursuing an M.A. in Biblical Counseling at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. While at Seminary, Love has enjoyed connecting with godly people who have a heart for Muslims and Indonesia. Love occasionally visits Indonesia where she usually joins and learns from others in ministering to her countrymen, including her non-Muslim family members.