The Indonesian government is facing international criticism for failing to get to grips with a rise in religious violence.
Two events in recent days have highlighted the problem.
A group of around 1,000 Muslims stormed a courthouse in Temanggung in central Java on Tuesday and set fire to two churches, destroying one of them. They were angry that a Christian man found guilty of distributing leaflets deemed to insult Islam was sentenced to five years in prison. many thought the sentence too lenient; some had been demanding the death penalty.
And on Sunday, a brutal lynching of an Islamic sect left at least three people dead in Banten, West Java. The Ahmadiyah sect, which counts as many as half a million followers, is seen by mainstream Muslims as heretic as it believes Indian preacher Mirza Ghulam Ahmad – and not Mohamed – was Islam’s final prophet.
A crowd of Muslims attacked the home of the sect’s leader, dragged followers outside and treated them to a savage beating that was captured on video. Although the images of the assault were too graphic for Indonesian television, the footage was posted on Youtube. The police had been forewarned of the attack but their response has been the subject of much criticism. Video footage shows two policemen ineffectively trying to stop the mob before leaving the scene. Police had earlier told the owner of the house that members of the sect should flee for their own safety.
In 2008 the Indonesian government decreed that the Ahmadiya was a deviant sect but stopped short of banning it. Critics say the ambiguous law has encouraged vigilante action by mainstream Muslims. There have been around a hundred recorded attacks on Ahmadis in the last three years.
Human Rights groups are among the most vociferous critics of the government.
“For years, Indonesian authorities have sat idly by while mobs have violently attacked the Ahmadi. If the government is serious about stopping violence against the Ahmadis then it should immediately lift the 2008 decree which prohibits the Ahmadi from practising their religion.” says Elaine Pearson of Human Rights Watch.
Indonesia has a population of 240 million people, 90 percent of whom are Muslims. The government insists it is committed to promoting religious tolerance but has been accused by NGOs of failing to act on religiously-motivated violence. The latest attacks will come as a particular embarrassment with the country celebrating “Interfaith Harmony Week”.