Indonesia has the most Muslims of any country in the world, 230 million out of a total population of 260 million. But there are also quite a few Christians, 9 percent of the total, a third of whom, 8 million, are Catholics.
And the story goes that relations between the two communities are unusually peaceful. One of the most renowned Indonesian Islamic theologians, Nurcholish Madjid (1939-2005), theorized that heaven is for anyone who surrenders to the Absolute, and therefore not only for Muslims, but also for Christians, Jews, Buddhists. And another great Muslim leader, Abdurrahman Wahid, president of the country between 1999 and 2001, was a staunch supporter of the political philosophy called “Pancasila,” according to which Indonesia belongs to Indonesians regardless of their religious affiliation.
It was with good reason, therefore, that the German-born Jesuit Franz Graf von Magnis, naturalized as an Indonesian with the name Franz Magnis-Suseno, gave the title “Islam and Christianity, the model is Indonesia” to his “lectio magistralis” given recently at the Catholic University of Milan and published in the latest issue of “Vita e Pensiero.”
But the signs have been growing for some time that even in Indonesia a fanatical and aggressive Islam is making inroads, under the pressure of Wahhabi groups, the Muslim Brotherhood, ISIS.
In the north of the island of Sumatra, in the province of Aceh, since 2002 there has been a full regime of shariah, the Qur’anic law, with a religious police force and the application of corporal punishment.
But even in areas with a reputation of moderation, like the islands of Java and Bali, Muslim intolerance is strongly on the rise. The independent Wahid Institute, named after the ex-president, has ascertained that in 2016 violations of religious freedom increased by 7 percent over the previous year, with spikes not only in Aceh but also in Java and the capital of Jakarta.
It is a diagnosis that is also shared by the authors of the annual survey of religious freedom in the world promoted by the international Catholic organization Aid To the Church in Need. In their judgment, Indonesia will be the next “new entry” on the list of the most intolerant Muslim nations.
The most glaring confirmation of this reversal of course is very recent. It is the sentence of two years in prison inflicted May 9 on a Christian of Chinese origin, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, nicknamed “Ahok,” the outgoing governor of Jakarta and until recently a strongly favored and popular candidate for the presidency of the country.
The accusation is that he offended the Muslim religion during a rally last September for his reelection as governor, during which Ahok contested as non-Qur’anic the claims of one of his opponents, according to whom Islam would not allow a non-Muslim to govern over Muslims.
Afterward came the charges and the trial, but above all the mobilization of the most intolerant factions of Indonesian Islam, which had a powerful influence both on the result of the election – with the defeat of Ahok and the victory of a radical Muslim, Anies Baswedan, as the new governor of Jakarta – and on the sentence in the trial, which was even tougher than had been asked for by the prosecution. Not to mention the downfall of any chance for Ahok to succeed as president of Indonesia to Joko Widoda, whose pupil and deputy governor he was in Jakarta.
With this paradigmatic affair Indonesia is drawing dangerously close to the levels of intolerance of Pakistan, the country with the second-largest number of Muslims, 180 million.
In Pakistan too there is an analogous emblematic case, that of the Christian Asia Bibi, an ordinary wife and mother who in 2010 was sentenced to death for blasphemy and has been held in solitary confinement since then while awaiting the results of a final appeal to the supreme court, which however has repeatedly delayed its ruling under pressure from the most radical Islamic organizations, which threaten with death anyone who would dare to defend or exonerate the woman, as has already happened to two of her courageous defenders and martyrs, the Christian Shahbaz Bhatti, minister of minorities, and the Muslim Salmaan Taseer, governor of Punjab.
For all the details on the case of Asia Bibi and on the incredible silence of Pope Francis about her:
(English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.)