Turning a Blind Eye

The Religious Left zealously supports the Ground Zero mosque, but where is its concern for Christians persecuted by Islamists?

What do Christians in Indonesia have in common with the faithful of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, whose lovely church building was obliterated by the falling World Trade Center Tower Two? Quite a bit, it would seem.

Like the Greek Orthodox parishioners, Indonesian Christians of the Filadelfia Batak Christian Protestant Church in the Jakarta suburb of Bekasi lost their church to an Islamic attack. Also like the New York churchgoers, they have not received permission to rebuild. And their plight, like that of the Christians in Manhattan, is disregarded by Christian leaders focused on the building of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf’s Ground Zero Mosque/Cordoba House Islamic Center.

In spite of the commonalities, Christians in Islamist-dominated Indonesia have a far more difficult road than the Christians of St. Nicholas, the little church that stood on Liberty Street, across from the World Trade Center South Tower. But Christians in Indonesia, and throughout the Islamic world, should serve as a warning of what may happen if tolerance and accommodation unreasonably are extended to those who are intolerant and unaccommodating.

Although Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population, some 200 million, there is a strong Christian presence. The Filadelfia Batak Christian Protestant Church (HKBP Filadelfia) is a member of the Huria Kristen Batak Protestan (HKBP) denomination founded in 1917 in the highlands of North Sumatra by Dutch and German missionaries to the Batak people. Part of the Lutheran World Federation, it is the largest Protestant church in Indonesia, with over 4 million members. This does not sit well with Indonesian Islamists.

In 1998, Indonesian Christians purchased land to build the HKBP Filadelfia Church. According to Compass Direct New Service, they jumped through all the hoops required to ensure that they did not “offend” Muslims. They had to secure the signatures of at least 60 Muslim residents and officials giving consent to the building of a Christian church and they received consent from two hundred.

But as church construction took place, the Indonesia’s religious tolerance deteriorated. Although most Indonesian Muslims were good neighbors to Christians, Islamic extremists targeted Christians. In Ambon, Maluku Island, thousands of Christians were slaughtered by the terrorist Laskar Jihad, who announced a “snuff out all the candles” campaign late in 2000. Although violence was not as prevalent in Jakarta, extremists burned down the almost-completed HKBP Filadelfia Church that November.

Church members then bought a house to use as a temporary worship space while applying for a permit to rebuild. But Islamists mobs protested the use of the house for church activities, too. And when mobs disrupted services and threatened the church goers, Christians were accused of disturbing the peace. Compass Direct New Service reported that authorities forbade the use of the house for worship by the church and sealed it up. At the same time they ignored the church’s request for a permit to build a church building on its own property. After this, church members were forced to meet for worship outside in an open field on the property they own.

On June 27, 2010, following an Islamic Congress in Bekasi, Islamists announced their plans to combat the “Christianization” of the Jakarata suburb. They urged local mosques to set up militia forces. They announced plans to establish an Islamic Center and to train a Laskar Permuda (youth army) to push for Shariah implementation in the region. “If the Muslims in the city can unite, there will be no more story about us being openly insulted by other religions,” Ahmad Salimin Dani, head of the Bekasi Islamic Missionary Council, announced at the gathering. “The center will ensure that Christians do not act out of order.”

But nobody ensures that the Islamists don’t act out of order. An August 16, 2010 Washington Post article reported, “For months, Christians in the industrial city of Bekasi have been warned against worshipping on a field that houses their shuttered church. They've arrived to find human feces dumped on the land and sermons have been interrupted by demonstrators chanting 'Infidels!' and 'Leave now!'” In the latest of five such confrontations, a small group of worshippers were attacked violently by a mob of over 300, although the Bekasi administration had approved the church’s decision to meet in the field months before, and that they were promised police protection.

The head of the extremist Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), alleged to be an Al Qaeda affiliate, Murhali Barda, said that the church’s “insistence on worshipping at the site was a provocation.” At the scene, Barda yelled (in a not-at-all provocative manner), “The Batak Christians deserve to be stabbed to death!” He then punched a few Christian women for good measure, thus demonstrating the manliness and courage of Islamists. According to the Jakarta Post, one young woman, “Berliana Sinaga, 22, suffered bruising after several men hit her in the head and face.” Pastor Palti Panjaitan demanded to know what more the demonstrators wanted from them, “We have been forced to worship under the sky, on newspapers, in front of our sealed church, and they still demonstrate against us,” Panjaitan declared.

One recent encouraging moment, relayed by Compass Direct News Service, was on August 17, 2010, the 65th anniversary of Indonesia independence. Moderate Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus supported the Christians in protesting the national government's lack of response to Islamic radicalism. The group, gathering at the National Monument Square in Jakarta, warned that government inaction was fostering the growth of extremism in the country. Dr. Musda Mulia, a Muslim research professor at the Indonesian Institute of Sciences, told Compass Direct News Service that all Indonesians have the right to freedom of religion. “It seems the government doesn’t want to deal with the radicals,” she said. “Persecution of Christians and other minorities has been my concern for many years, but the government is very weak.”

Meanwhile, in the United States, supporting radical Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and the building of the Islamic center is the priority of the leaders of the Religious Left, such as the National Council of Churches (NCC). Although the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America is a member denomination of the NCC, the NCC has shown no similar support for Father John Romas, the pastor of St. Nicholas Church or the people of St. Nicholas Church. Nor has the NCC uttered a statement of solidarity with persecuted Christians in Indonesia.

In his recent statement of support for the “Cordoba House and Mosque at Ground Zero,” NCC General Secretary Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon says that Cordoba House “is a gesture of neighborliness and healing.” This is not quite how those who are opposed to Cordoba House see it. They say the mosque is a gesture of a different sort altogether. And many of the 70 percent of Americans who are opposed to the plans are stunned by the NCC’s eagerness to accommodate the agenda of Islamism while ignoring the needs of fellow Christians.

True to form, Kinnamon accuses opponents of Imam Rauf’s grand plan of “narrow-minded intolerance.” This is the “same ignorance that has led to hate crimes and systematic discrimination against Muslims,” he says. But neither Kinnamon, nor any liberal church leaders, have condemned Islamists' narrow-minded intolerance or the hate crimes and systematic discrimination perpetrated against Christians such as those in Bekasi, Indonesia. Occasionally the NCC issues statements urging prayer for “ethnic conflict” (one of the few times when they are satisfied with “praying” about something rather than becoming involved politically!). But they would never articulate the problem: an Islamic jihad is seeking to wipe out Christians. Neither have they clamored for justice for Christians closer to home, the parishioners of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church, still waiting for permission to rebuild their church.

Kinnamon and his tolerant, liberal Religious Left friends appear to not understand the agenda of Imam Rauf and Cordoba House or the agenda of Islam. His ignorance of Islam is breathtakingly obvious when he protests that a “tiny minority” of Muslims have committed “violent acts” that “defy the teachings of Mohammed.” And as for violent acts defying the teachings of Mohammed – has Kinnamon never read the Koran? Or if he has, doesn't he know that the earlier, vaguely tolerant passages are abrogated by the later, intolerant passages? And what about Mohammed's own violent acts? Has Kinnamon never heard how Mohammed wiped out the Qurayza Jews of Medina in 627 A.D.?

Kinnamon rightly regrets slavery in America, which he says was “justified with Bible proof-texts and a belief that blacks were inferior to whites.” But in reality, slavery is much more closely associated with Islam. “Mohammed’s teachings” include the idea that slaves are given to Muslim warriors as “booty,” by Allah. Allah’s endorsement of the rape of slave girls and (more often than not) boys, justifies such “violent acts” perpetrated by Islamists against Christian and other infidel “slaves” taking place today.

One 9/11-haunted man who still sees “the face of the young man” who worked in his department that was killed found Kinnamon’s press release offensive. Like many non-Greek Orthodox people who worked in New York, this gentleman occasionally attended St. Nicholas. “It was pleasant and welcoming. Now it’s gone,” he said. He challenged the NCC to “lead an effort to build a 100 million dollar Greek Orthodox Church at Ground Zero” even while admitting that he knew that it was highly unlikely. The NCC critic also asked why the council could not “use its clout to speak out for Christians in Muslim countries who are often discriminated against” and suggested that the NCC “talk about what is good about America instead of always harping on its problems or why the people who built the country were racists, bible thumping bigots, etc.”

The Religious Left often excuses the oppression of Christians living under Islam. Islamists in Bekasi, Indonesia, who find the very existence of the Christians of the HKBP Filadelfia Church offensive, violate Indonesian Christians’ human rights. Yet cultural sensitivity to the Islamic world is of paramount importance to Christian leaders of the Religious Left. So they are circumspect concerning Indonesian co-religionists.

But the Religious Left also puts first cultural sensitivity to Islam in the United States. It matters little that the thought of a mosque symbolizing Islamic victory is offensive to most Americans. Or that the church home of over seventy families of Greek Orthodox Christians and countless visitors, the only church to be destroyed on 9/11, still has not been rebuilt.  The sensitivities of Muslims in America, and the need to accommodate the Ground Zero Mosque, are of paramount importance to Christian leaders of the Religious Left.

When do the sensitivities, the feelings, of non-Muslims get to be taken into account? Maybe that is not a critical matter. But regardless of feelings, the situation of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in New York is disturbingly similar to that of the Indonesian Christian Church. At present, St. Nicholas’ plight is just a matter of red tape and indifference, not government-sanctioned discrimination. But rather than demonstrate solidarity with and the importance of this historic Christian church by pressing for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to allow its swift rebuilding, liberal church leaders are more concerned with demonstrating their accommodation to Islam. How far will their accommodation go?

Faith J. H. McDonnell directs The Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Religious Liberty Program and Church Alliance for a New Sudan, and is the author of Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children (Chosen Books, 2007).