New Spirit of Tolerance Needed in Indonesia, Says Leader

News July 2001

Silver Spring, Maryland, USA .... [Bettina Krause/ANN]

Deadly religious conflicts in Indonesia can only be avoided by "building bridges of understanding" between the country's different religious and ethnic groups, says Ulil Abshar Abdalla, senior officer of the Indonesian Commission on Religion and Peace. Abdalla says it is vital to resist the current trend in Indonesian society for different groups to become "islands unto themselves."

Abdalla's comments came during a July 26 visit with members of the International Religious Liberty Association at the Seventh-day Adventist Church world headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

In the past three years, more than 5,000 people have been killed in clashes between Christians and Muslims in the Maluku provinces of East Indonesia. Hundreds of churches and mosques have been destroyed, including four Adventist church buildings that were burnt to the ground during riots. An estimated 200,000 people have been forced to flee their homes because of the violence.

These conflicts are grounded not only in religious differences, but in longstanding ethnic and economic rivalries as well, explains Abdalla.

More than 210 million people live in Indonesia, one of the world's most densely populated countries. The majority--some 85 percent--are Muslim, 10 percent are Christian, two percent Hindu and one percent Buddhist.

Since the 1998 collapse of the centralized government of President Suharto, there has been a shift in political power to local regions, says Abdalla. At the same time, there has been a corresponding "revival of identity among different groups in society," he explains.

This renewed sense of strong group identity--based in part on religion, ethnicity, and economic status--is at the root of much of the regional violence in Indonesia over the past three years, says Abdalla.

"The nation is still in transition; the law is in the process of being made and remade," he says. Abdalla believes that Indonesia must continue to work toward a legal and political system that is capable of treating all its citizens equally, regardless of religion or ethnicity.

Abdalla is optimistic about the long-term prospects for creating a "peaceful pluralism" in Indonesia. He says it is significant that, before the recent conflicts, Indonesia had a long tradition of tolerance between different groups.

His organization, the Commission on Religion and Peace, is working to expand its network of interfaith groups in Indonesia, providing forums for both "sharing commonality" and for "mediating conflict."

Abdalla, who is also the executive director of the Institute for the Study of the Free Flow of Information--an organization promoting freedom of the press in Indonesia--is in the United States as part of the government's International Visitor Program. This program, coordinated by the State Department, aims to give leaders from different countries insights into the culture and political system of the United States.