Indonesia School Teachers Guilty, Sentenced to Three Years in Prison

Three women in Indonesia, who were arrested and charged with 'Christianisation', have been convicted by Indonesian judges and sentenced to three years in prison.

Dr. Rebecca Laonita, Mrs Ratna Mala Bangun and Mrs Ety Pangesti of Gereja Kristen Kemah Daud (GKKD), of the Christian Church of David's Camp; were involved in a children's holiday project called ‘Happy Week’ in Haurgelis, West Java.

They were imprisoned on 13th May in Indramayu State Prison and found guilty on 1 September of violating the Child Protection Act of 2002, which forbids "deception, lies or enticement" causing a child to convert to another religion. The maximum sentence for violation of the Act is five years in prison and a fine of 100 million rupiah (US$10,226).

When the verdict was announced at 11am local time, the courtroom filled with Muslim radicals, shouted "Allahu akbar!", which means "God is great!"

The three women are allegedly planning to appeal the conviction, and it was reported that they were devastated at the fact that they will be separated from their children, ranging from the age of 6 to 19.

Murderous threats were made by Islamic extremists inside and outside the courtroom. One was reported to have brought a coffin to bury the defendant if they were found innocent.

"The ladies, witnesses and judges were constantly under the threats of violence from hundreds of Islamic radicals who threatened to kill the three ladies, witnesses, pastors, missionaries and even the judges if the women were acquitted," Jeff Hammond of Bless Indonesia Today told Compass.

Their story began in 2003, when the elementary school in the area asked the church staff to provide a Christian education programme at their school.

The reason for this resulted from a change in the law, which occurred in June 2003 when the National Education System Bill came into force. The Bill requires providing religious education for children of religious minorities.

Since the school in Babakan Jati had no means of providing Christian education, they asked GKKD church to provide the programme.

The programme consisted of opening and closing prayers, singing songs, practical tutoring in reading, writing and mathematics and trips to parks and swimming pools.

The programme was very successful and attractive not only for Christian children, but later for Muslim children as well. The number of children attending the 'Happy Week' reached 40, among them just 10 Christian children.

Muslim children, who attended the programme, were doing so with the full consent of their parents. The problems then arose when it came to the attention of the local authorities that some of the children started to sing Christian praises at school and at home.

The case of 'Christianisation' was brought against the women by the local chapter of the Indonesian Council of Muslim Clerics (MUI) who alleged that the women enticed Muslim children to participate and that they tried to convert the children to Christianity by giving them gifts.

Despite the fact that the families had full knowledge of their children taking part in the programme and did not have any complaints, the women were arrested and charged.

The trial that began on 30th June has attracted a lot of attention, as Mujahadeen militants were present at the court hearings and reports have been emerging of extremists interfering with witnesses.

This made observers fear that a great injustice would be done. It seems that the militants hope to set a legal precedent from the Child Protection Laws of 2002 which would prevent Muslim children from attending Sunday schools or any Christian-led activities, Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) reported.

Indonesia, as the world's largest Muslim nation, has till now enjoyed the reputation of a country with religious tolerance and freedom. However, the recent reports and cases reveal the growing influence of a radical Islamist agenda in the area and in Indonesia as a whole.

At the local level, reportedly over 100 churches have been closed down or destroyed in West Java in the last five years. At the national level, several high-ranking politicians including the Head of Parliament, Hidayat Nur Wahid, are known to be sympathetic to the introduction of Shari’ah law in Indonesia.

CSW's Advocacy Director, Tina Lambert noted that, "for three women to be arrested, detained and charged for simply organising a children's holiday club in good faith illustrates how serious the situation for Christians in Indonesia is becoming. CSW urges the British government to raise this case with the Indonesian government."

Paul Marshall, a senior fellow at Freedom House's Center for Religious Freedom, said the case could establish a dangerous precedent. "It's especially troubling and worrisome since it occurred in Indonesia, a country long known for its relative religious freedom," Marshall said. "If it signifies the future direction of the country, the consequences will be terrible."

An editorial in the Jakarta Post read: "It is time now to stop pretending that Indonesia is a perfect model for religious tolerance...the people of this nation are less tolerant now toward differences in religion."