Violence erupted in Jakarta in mid-May and continued for two days. Thousands of foreigners have since fled Indonesia. More are departing daily in the wake of the latest round of violence in a nation plagued by economical and political instability.
Christians in the area are maintaining a low profile for fear of increased persecution amidst the chaos. Followers of Christ worldwide are keeping their eyes on Indonesia and their prayers heavenbound for the safety of the country's Christians. The United States Embassy has issued a warning to all Americans to defer travel to the area, and has strongly urged those Americans in Jakarta or Surabaya to depart immediately.
Indonesia's 1997 economic nosedive set the stage for the nation's latest crisis under its former ruler, Suharto. He recently resigned after 32 years in power. In May of this year, fuel prices skyrocketed. Kerosene and petrol both rose 70 percent as the Indonesian government attempted to comply with the terms of the International Monetary Fund's bailout plan of $40 billion.
Then, on May 12, police shot and killed six protesting students at Jakarta's Trisaki University. Many Indonesian students have been calling for reform in the political system.
A SHORT HISTORY
In the early 1960s, Indonesia was threatened with a Communist coup. This environment swept Suharto into power. Despite a surface adherence to democratic forms, the Indonesian political system under him has been strongly authoritarian.
Petros Maryono, a native of Indonesia and currently a Ph.D. student at the Dallas Theological Seminary, served as a pastor in the Far East country from 1973-1978. "In Suharto's early years, Christians were given many freedoms. Christians enjoyed the freedom to evangelize, build churches, and meet in homes. Because of this freedom, Christianity experienced tremendous growth," said Maryono.
Mike Pocock is Chairman and Professor of World Missions and Intercultural Studies at Dallas Seminary. He concurred with Maryono's assessment. "When Suharto came into power, there was a tremendous revival. It is interesting to note that Indonesia is the strongest Christian nation in Asia." According to Pocock, the average Asian country's Christian population is 3%. Indonesia's Christian population is 7.1%.
The growth of Christianity caused consternation among the Muslim community of Indonesia, which claims 85% of the population. As a result, Muslims adopted a systematic approach to stunt the growth of Christianity.
"Oppression started out as mental or psychological pressure on the Christian population and increased to formal strategies of opposing Christianity's growth," Maryono explained. "Within the last five years, the opposition and subsequent persecution has risen dramatically."
According to Pocock, 350 churches were burned in Indonesia in just the first five months of 1998. Maryono believes that number to be conservative. According to the U.S. State Department's 1998 Report on Human Rights, several instances of mob violence have occurred over the last few years in Indonesia; they have included attacks on churches, Christian schools, and other religious facilities.
LATEST ROUND OF RIOTS
The Chinese, who comprise approximately 3% of Indonesia's population and are mainly Christians, bore the brunt of the latest round of riots. Reports from various sources have likened the destruction of Chinese communities to that of Berlin and Rotterdam after World War II.
"The destruction of every shop, bank, restaurant, hotel, and place of business is very complete," writes missionary Bill Hekman with the Christian Leaders Association, "As the people loot and burn they shout 'Allahuakbar!' (God is Great). This is a racial and religious war of a one-sided attack by Moslems against Chinese who can do nothing to defend themselves."
A young Chinese man, his name withheld for security reasons, writes, "Yesterday, they invaded my house. At first they only threw rocks. Suddenly they managed to get inside and forced us to leave. They are shouting at us, violently pushed us out, and beat us up. We've passed the horrible night all right, but we still live in horror and not knowing when this unfortunate (persecution for his) faith will be over. Evacuate? To where? As far as the Chinese can see, there's no safe place for them."
Many observers concur that the Chinese have been targeted. Steve Snyder serves on the staff of International Christian Concern. That organization's mission is to assist Christians worldwide who are experiencing persecution and oppression. "The Chinese are suffering the most," Snyder said. "Primarily, it is racially motivated. However, Islamic Fundamentalists are capitalizing on the chaos, so there is a religious element to it as well."
Both Pocock and Maryono agreed that militant Muslims are using the unrest to attack their enemies.
"Muslims are using the chaos as a means to justify open attacks on Christians," Maryono said.
Maryono believes that Indonesia is in a transitional situation. "In general, I think there is widespread opinion that the economic crisis must be resolved," he said. "While Christians will continue to experience persecution, there probably won't be organized mass persecution. There are too many other political and economic issues facing the country."
"I don't see tensions subsiding until the political situation is stable, which will keep Christians at risk for possible attacks," said Snyder.
Daniel Oh is a resident of Yogyakarta. He has a considerably brighter outlook. He believes nationwide bloodshed and destruction could have occurred, but that God intervened on behalf of the Christians of Indonesia. "So God intervened," he said. "And the surprising turn of events calmed the nerves of so many. Peace returned once again, at least for the moment. Anxiety still remains for tomorrow, but hope brightly shines in the midst of uncertainty."
Copyright © 1998 D/FW Heritage. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
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