Indonesia, the worlds largest Muslim-majority nation, has had a long tradition of pluralism, religious freedom and inter-religious harmony, and is widely respected around the world for its successful transition from authoritarian rule to democracy. Rising religious intolerance, however, threatens to destroy these achievements and poses a threat not only to the countrys religious minorities, but to all Indonesians who value democracy, human rights, peace and stability.


Across the archipelago, a growing number of Christian churches are threatened with closure, or in some instances violently attacked and destroyed, by radical Islamist groups and local authorities. The Ahmadiyya Muslim community also faces serious persecution, with many Ahmadi mosques and followers attacked. In 2012, Shia Muslims faced increasing threats and violence, a Shia cleric was imprisoned on charges of blasphemy, and an atheist was jailed because he publicly declared his disbelief in God. According to the Setara Institute, which publishes annual reports on religious freedom, in 2012 264 incidents were documented, compared with 244 in 2011, 2016 in 2010 and 200 in 2009.  Indonesia’s pluralism is increasingly in peril.

State repression of religion

While much of the religious intolerance in Indonesia is driven by non-state actors, particularly radical Islamist organisations such as the Front Pembela Islam (FPI) [Islamic Defenders Front], the State is complicit in three respects:  Firstly through discriminatory or restrictive legislation, secondly through local mayors and other local authorities forcibly closing places of worship, and thirdly through negligence, failing to protect vulnerable communities from attack or bringing the perpetrators of religiously-motivated violence to justice.

Radical Islamists use intimidation and violence in some cases, but they also make use of Indonesia’s legal system to justify their campaign to suppress religious freedom. In particular, the blasphemy law, Shari’a-inspired regulations, the government’s 2008 joint ministerial decree banning the dissemination of Ahmadi teachings, regulations on church construction, and various fatwas (religious decrees) from the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI), the council of Muslim clerics, are used for the purposes of restricting religious freedom. In 2011, the Minister for Religious Affairs, Suryadharma Ali, repeatedly called for a total ban on the Ahmadiyya community, pointing to the MUI fatwa and the 2008 decree as the basis for a ban. According to Hakimul Ikhwan, a lecturer at the School of Sociology at Gadjah Mada University, these laws and policies “have allowed the hard-liners to capitalise on majority support to attack Ahmadiyya members and prevent the construction of houses of worship for non-Muslims. Those decrees, in many instances, have legitimised the majority oppression over the minorities.” 

In an increasing number of cases, local mayors, under pressure from radical Islamists, have forcibly closed churches and Ahmadi mosques, even when they are legally licensed and registered. In several cases the places of worship concerned have challenged the local government’s decision in court, and the courts have ruled in favour of the place of worship, but the local mayor has refused to back down. In two high-profile cases, GKI Yasmin church in Bogor, West Java, and HKBP Filadelfia in Bekasi, near Jakarta, the Supreme Court has ruled that the churches are legal and should be allowed to open, but the local mayor continues to refuse permission. The mayors, therefore, are in defiance of the Supreme Court, thus undermining the rule of law.

Fleeing persecution

Many churches which have been forcibly closed continue to try to hold Sunday worship services in the street outside, often in the face of serious intimidation. In 2011, CSW joined GKI Yasmin’s service in the street outside the church building in Bogor, and witnessed the mob of radical Islamists shouting threats at the Christian congregation. In 2012, CSW joined HKBP Filadelfia church’s attempt to hold a Sunday service, and witnessed the congregation being prevented from holding a worship service by a radical Islamist mob and local police. The atmosphere grew increasingly tense, with the mob shouting “Christians get out” and “catch anyone not wearing a jilbab [headscarf] and if necessary hunt them down”. Four days later, the congregation was prevented from holding an Ascension Day service, and an Islamist mob threw urine, sewage and frogs at them, according to news reports. This harassment continues, despite a ruling by a local court that upheld the church’s right to open and function.

In Lombok, over 100 Ahmadi men, women and children have been living in a temporary camp for displaced people since their homes were burned down in an attack by extremists in 2006. In Sampang, Madura Island, East Java, over 200 Shia Muslims were displaced following a violent attack by 1,000 Sunni Muslims on their village in August 2012 which left two dead. For ten months, they lived in a sports hall in Sampang, but in June 2013, they were evicted from the sports hall and are now accommodated in Sidaoarjo, East Java. 

West Papua

The indigenous people of West Papua are predominantly Christian, and while the conflict in West Papua is primarily political and ethnic, there is a religious dimension. Indonesia has pursued a policy of transmigration which has had a significant impact on the demographics in West Papua. Many of the best business and educational opportunities are perceived to have gone to Muslims from other parts of Indonesia, making the Christian Papuans feel marginalised in their own land. The militarisation of West Papua has led to widespread and serious violations of human rights, and there are fears of religious tensions developing. CSW advocates dialogue between the Indonesian Government and representatives of the West Papuan people, demilitarisation, and an end to the violations of human rights, including the release of political prisoners such as Filep Karma, a Christian jailed for fifteen years for raising the West Papuan ‘Morning Star’ flag, the symbol of West Papua’s independence struggle.

CSW’s work in Indonesia

CSW has worked in Indonesia for over fifteen years, documenting violations of freedom of religion or belief in Indonesia and promoting freedom of religion or belief for all. CSW travels regularly to Indonesia, and has visited Christian churches which have been forcibly closed, destroyed or have faced threats, Ahmadiyya Muslim communities facing persecution, Shia Muslims displaced in Sampang, a Shia cleric in prison and an atheist in prison. CSW has travelled extensively in Indonesia, including in West Java, East Java, North Sumatra, West Sumatra, South Sulawesi, Central Sulawesi, the Moluccas, Lombok and West Papua. CSW has published several reports documenting the increasing religious intolerance in Indonesia, and regularly briefs policy makers and parliamentarians in the United Kingdom, the European Union, the United States and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. CSW also regularly contributes commentary and analysis on the situation in Indonesia to the international media. 

Key Dates

1 June 1945 : Pancasila Day, marking the anniversary of the speech by President Sukarno on the ‘Pancasila’ – the founding principles that include respect for religious diversity

17 August 1945: The foundation of Indonesia as an independent nation

1 May 1963: UN transfers authority for West Papua to Indonesia

11 March 1966: General Suharto forces President Sukarno to delegate presidential powers to himself

July-August 1969: Act of Free Choice, a vote of 1025 West Papuans handpicked by the Indonesian military, transferring sovereignty over West Papua to Indonesia 

21 May 1998: President Suharto resigns

1999-2002: Christian-Muslim conflict in the Moluccas and Poso

30 December 2009 – former President Abdurrahman Wahid dies

6 February 2011: Cikeusik attack, in which a mob of several hundred attacked 25 Ahmadis, leaving three dead

26 August 2012: Shia Muslims attacked in Sampang, East Java, leaving two dead


  • Capital: Jakarta
  • Population: 242 million
  • Majority language: Bahasa Indonesia
  • Major religions: Islam, Christianity (Catholic and Protestant), Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism
  • Geography: approximately 17,508 islands (of which approximately 6,000 are inhabited)

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