LABUAN BAJO, Indonesia—Christians, whose rights in Muslim-dominated Indonesia are enshrined in law, now fear persecution under new President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who they said will herald a rise of Islam and erosion of religious tolerance.
Sectarian violence has been a staple of Indonesian headlines as clashes in trouble spots claim an increasing death toll. Unease is now spreading to peaceful Christian regions following Yudhoyono’s recent poll win.
In Labuan Bajo, a tranquil port on the mainly Christian Flores island, tensions between Catholics and Muslims recently surfaced around a new mosque project—a building critics said is being erected more as a political gesture than to fulfill any religious need.
Father Egis Rada Masri, who teaches at the island’s John Paul II seminary, said Labuan Bajo has also seen an influx of people from deeply Muslim areas of Indonesia, adding to Christian concerns
“Some want to use Labuan Bajo as a door for expanding Islamic influence. We see here new faces, militants coming from Makassa or Bima, wearing white dress and white caps. They are missionaries of Islam,” Egis told Agence France-Presse.
Flores, evangelized by Portuguese then Dutch missionaries during the last two centuries, intends to preserve its Catholic majority, free from the violence which has targeted other Christian communities in the archipelago.
But the disquiet felt here was shown in the recent presidential elections, in which incumbent Megawati Sukarnoputri, resoundingly beaten by Yudhoyono, recorded her best scores in regions with a strong Christian or Hindu presence.
For Christians in Flores, strong support for Megawati’s Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle was largely seen an expression of their fear of the unknown and of Yudhoyono’s running mate and now-Vice President Yusuf Kalla.
Kalla, a wealthy Muslim politician, is believed by some Christians to be sympathetic to radical Islamic militants behind sectarian violence that has flared across Indonesia in recent years.
A bloody conflict has shaken the Moluccas, 2,400 kilometers (1,500 miles) east of Jakarta from 1999 to 2002, leaving 5,000 dead and some 700,000 homeless.
In the center of Sulawesi Island, more than 1,000 civilians have been killed since sectarian clashes in 2000.
“Yusuf Kalla is linked to dark stories about burning churches in South Sulawesi,” a senior official in the staunchly Catholic Flores city of Ruteng said on condition of anonymity.
“People are very worried that he became vice president. They are worried that he might change the basic law.”
Egis said, “Megawati protected everybody” whereas Yudhoyono’s administration reflected heavy Islamic overtones.
Yudhoyono has recently profited from the support of minority Islamic parties in an Indonesian parliament chaired by a Muslim politician. Megawati and her coalition, led by the secular and once powerful Golkar Party—which expelled Kalla earlier this year—are in decline.
“Golkar and Megawati’s party have come undone and perhaps that marks a new beginning for the Islamic parties,” said Egis.
Almost 90 percent of Indonesia’s 212 million people are Muslim, practicing a tolerant form of the religion. But in certain areas where Christians account for a substantial proportion of the population, sectarian violence is chronic.
In October several Christians were killed on the island of Sulawesi by Islamic activists demanding the introduction of hardline Sharia law in Indonesia.
A macabre attack on one Christian farm last month saw the slaughter of dozens of pigs, considered impure under Islam.
Father Stanis Wyparlo, a Catholic priest of Polish origin who has lived in Indonesia for 40 years, does not believe that hardline Sharia laws can be imposed in Indonesia, but he said the country’s Christians are concerned.
“On [the islands of] Java or Sulawesi it is very difficult to get permission to build a church. Many Muslim organizations are against us. They said Catholicism is a religion from colonialism.”