A court in Indonesia last week sentenced a Muslim to three months in jail for halting a Christian worship service.
Sources said reducing the charge from blasphemy to disrupting a worship service, combined with an agreement the Muslim reached with the church, resulted in a lighter sentence than would have been given to a Christian committing the same crime.
On the island of Sumatra, the Tanjungkarang District Court on Tuesday 15 August delivered the sentence to Wawan Kurniawan, 41, head of RT 012 neighborhood, Rajabasa Jaya village, Rajabasa District in Bandar Lampung City, Lampung Province, for disrupting the worship of the Tabernacle of David Christian Church (Gereja Kristen Kemah Daud, or GKKD).
The sentence, announced by the chairman of the panel of judges, Samsumar Hidayat, during a hearing at the Tanjung Karang District Court in Bandar Lampung, was a month less than prosecutors had sought.
"What makes the sentence lighter is there had been a mediation meeting between the defendant and the congregation," Hidayat said, according to detik.com.
Kurniawan, the panel of judges said, was guilty of violating Article 335 of the Indonesian Criminal Code, as stopping the worship service was beyond his authority as the head of the neighborhood.
The sentence was unfairly light, religious rights advocate Satya Nugraha Yanutama told Morning Star News.
Police detained Kurniawan on March 22 under Indonesia's blasphemy law, according to Kompas.com. But the head of Information and Legal Section of the Lampung High Prosecutor's Office, Made Agus Putra, said in May that the Public Prosecution Team at the Bandar Lampung Prosecutor's Office on May 11 released Wawan, as the charges had been reduced and his wife and legal counsel requested a detention suspension, according to Kompas.com.
Satya told Morning Star News that the conviction was an example of imbalances in Indonesia's justice system that harm minority groups.
"Application of the law sometimes depends on who is involved in the case," he said. "For example, the Indonesian Ministry of Religious Affairs has effectively issued guidance on the sound-system volume in mosques aimed at improving peace, order and harmony among the people, but not all parties pay heed to the appeal. Without punishment, the problems will keep going."
Many mosques have been built close to church buildings, and their loud sound systems interfere with church worship, Satya said.
Pastor Lukas Sutrisno said bias in application of the law was typified by the 2016 case of a Buddhist woman who complained about the loudness of the Muslim call to prayer, with her objections triggering violence that led to her being sentenced to 18 months in prison.
"The law only applies to minorities," Pastor Sutrisno said.
The law applied in her case was Chapter 156a of the Indonesia Penal Code, which states, "Anyone who deliberately, publicly expresses feelings or commits an act which is essentially hostile, abuses or desecrates a religion adhered to in Indonesia, is threatened with imprisonment for a maximum of 5 (five) years," according to Tempo.co.
The Buddhist woman, Meiliana, a now 49-year-old woman of Chinese descent, then resided in Tanjung Balai, North Sumatra. On July 22, 2016, she complained about the loudness of the call to prayer of Al Maksun Mosque in Jalan Karya Neighborhood I, Tanjung Balai Kota I Urban village, Tanjung Balai Selatan District, to a shop owner near her house, according to JakartaPost.Com.
The mosque imam and some of his staff members then paid a visit to Meliana's house, resulting in a heated debate, but Meliana's husband asked forgiveness and tensions calmed. Minutes later, however, mosque attendants led Meliana to the local village head, who then brought her to police for a mediation attempt. In the middle of the mediation process, riots broke out, allegedly launched by the people from outside the village, according to Tempo.co.
Meliana's house and Buddhist temples and monasteries around Tanjung Balai were destroyed. Rioting culminated in an attack on the Tri Ratna Temple and Dewi Samudera Temple, on the banks of the Asahan River, before dawn. At least three monasteries, eight temples, two Chinese foundation offices and a medical center were damaged. Police detained a total of 20 people.
Meiliana was indicted for blasphemy in March 2017. Eight local people involved in the destruction of the monastery and pagoda were also arrested and sentenced to one to three months in prison.
Meliana was sentenced to 18 months for complaining about the loud voice of the Muslim call to prayer. She was released on parole on May 21, 2019 after serving nine months of her sentence after advocates in Indonesia and abroad protested. Two large Muslim organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, along with leading public figures, had also denounced the verdict against her. A petition launched successfully gathered more than 30,000 signatures asking President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo to free Meiliana.
Indonesia ranked 33rd on Christian support organization Open Doors' 2023 World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to be a Christian. Indonesian society has adopted a more conservative Islamic character, and churches involved in evangelistic outreach are at risk of being targeted by Islamic extremist groups, according to Open Doors' WWL report.
"If a church is seen to be preaching and spreading the gospel, they soon run into opposition from Islamic extremist groups, especially in rural areas," the report noted. "In some regions of Indonesia, non-traditional churches struggle to get permission for church buildings, with the authorities often ignoring their paperwork."