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6 Indonesian Christians await presidential ruling

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LONDON (BP)–Indonesia’s most infamous “persecution” case has reached the desk of President Abdurrahman Wahid, with a decision expected soon, according to the Internet news service Compass Direct.

Elsewhere in Indonesia, recent Christian-Muslim developments include the murder of two Christians on Ambon island and death sentences being imposed on two Christian evangelists for allegedly insulting Islam.

Pending before President Wahid is the case of six Christians — three men and three women — from Padang, West Sumatra, who were tried and convicted of abducting and forcibly converting a teenage Muslim girl in mid-1999. The six were given jail sentences of between six and 10 years each, and the three men have already served one year in jail.

Yet the evidence was “extremely tenuous,” as described by Compass Direct, and many suspect local Muslim extremists of mounting an elaborate “sting operation.”

The sentences were upheld in appeals that extended to the nation’s supreme court. As a last resort, the case has been referred to President Wahid, who has the power to issue pardons to the six.

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The six Christians, according to Compass Direct, are Salmon Ongirwalu and his wife, who sheltered the Muslim teenage girl who claimed to be a convert to Christianity; a local pastor, Yanwardi Koto, and his secretary, Jenny Mendrofa; and Robert Marthinus and his wife. Marthinus was the principal of the school in which the girl was placed.

Compass Direct recounted that the case involves a teenage girl, Khariyah Enniswah, who visited the pastor in March 1998 claiming to be a Muslim convert to Christianity and asking for protection from her family, whom she alleged were out to kill her. Enniswah was sent to a school and placed with a Christian family while local Christians decided what to do.

The girl’s uncle, however, “discovered” her in the school and claimed she had been “abducted, raped and forced to convert to Christianity.” He stirred up local anger in the predominantly Muslim area, and the trial of the six Christians took place during the summer of 1999 in a situation of “great intimidation,” as described by Compass Direct.

Human rights organizations condemned the verdicts, and local Christians maintained the girl was “planted” by the uncle in order to
stir up trouble, Compass Direct reported.

President Wahid, a Muslim cleric, has a history with the case. He visited Padang at the height of Muslim outrage and told Muslims in the local mosque that they had “not been good Muslims.” He reiterated that since Indonesia was “not a Muslim country, anyone has the right to choose their own religion.” This was prior to the verdict, however, and it is not known if Wahid considers the judgment an injustice.

“This case is very awkward,” a government source in Jakarta confided to Compass Direct. “If Wahid issues a pardon, he completely condemns the entire legal apparatus in the country as prejudiced, since every level of the judiciary found the accused guilty.”

But many Christians are hopeful that Wahid — a staunch defender of religious pluralism and loathed by Muslim extremists accordingly — will free the six.

The three men have already served more than a year in prison, but the women have not been put in prison on compassionate grounds while the appeal process continues.

Eastern Indonesia’s Ambon Island, meanwhile, had been experiencing a relatively peaceful period that was shattered by the violent and mysterious shooting of a local Christian leader, Agus Wattimena, on March 10 and the discovery on March 26 of the mutilated body of 26-year-old Semi Toisuta, the son of a Protestant minister in Ambon.

In another development, two Christian evangelists were issued death sentences (fatwas) from a mosque in Bandung, Indonesia, on Feb. 25 for allegedly insulting Islam. The two evangelists are Suradi Ben Abraham and H.A. Poernama Winangun of the Nehemiah Foundation.

The charges relate to a book written by Winangun in 1997 claiming that Jesus was equal to God — an orthodox teaching within the Christian faith — and that the Koran contradicted itself. The two have already said they are prepared to defend themselves in a court of law. Both are former Muslims who are controversial within the Christian community because of their aggressive preaching style.

On a more positive note, 200 Muslim and Christian leaders traveled to the village of Langgur on the island of Tual for three days of dialogue. Participants signed what they are calling “the Langgur Recommendation” on Sunday, March 18. The recommendation calls upon them to display “a firm and unvacillating intent to find a solution to end the conflict and the violence which up to now have unsettled the Moluccas and North Moluccas.”
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Used by permission of Compass Direct.