Almost three months after suicide bombers attacked three churches in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city, I stood at the very spot where the first bomb exploded. At 7.15am on Sunday, May 13, two teenage boys drove at high speed through a red light and into the gate of Santa Maria Tak Bercela Catholic church, as parishioners were leaving the first Mass and others were arriving for the second Mass. Six people were killed and more than 30 injured.
Minutes later a woman and her two daughters, aged six and eight, wearing niqabs and veils, arrived at the GKI Protestant church. The security guard on the gate was suspicious. He stopped them – and a bomb exploded. According to one account, “there were many bombs strapped to her body, and to her daughters’, including a big bomb on her leg”.
At 7.53am a third church, a Pentecostal congregation, was hit as a man drove a Toyota through the gates, ploughing through people and into the church building, detonating a bomb. Eight people in total died.
The terrible connecting factor between these three attacks was that the bombers were all from one family. The parents strapped explosives on to their children, including their young daughters, who only the previous day had been seen playing with friends in the street.
At the Catholic church, the priest showed me an upstairs room which he said was strewn with blood and body parts flung by the force of the blast. “That day was very terrible for us, because Surabaya was a safe city, with many moderate Muslims,” Fr Aloysius Widyawan told me.
As shocking as it was that one family could bomb three churches, perhaps even more astonishing is the faith and courage of the congregation. Everyone I met spoke the same word: “forgiveness”. Fr Aloysius told me that the consistent response from all his parishioners was: “We must love others; we forgive the attackers; we do not want revenge.”
The mother of two Catholic boys who died, aged 8 and 12, said just two days after the bombing: “I have already forgiven the bombers. I don’t want to cry anymore. I know that our Mother Mary also lost her son, Jesus. I forgive.”
The other poignant response was from Muslims and people of other faiths throughout the country. The Catholic Archbishop of Jakarta, Mgr Ignatius Suharyo, told me that at the evening Mass that same day in Jakarta’s cathedral, which sits opposite the vast Istiqlal Mosque, two young Muslim women came, unannounced and began to hand out red and white roses (the colours of the Indonesian flag) to the congregation in a gesture of solidarity. Fr Aloysius said that in Surabaya Muslims came to the churches to express condolences and help clear up the wreckage.
What does this, Indonesia’s worst terrorist attack in recent years, mean for the country’s future? It is a mixed picture. Indonesia has often been regarded as a model of religious pluralism and moderate Islam, and in response to these tragedies that tradition was on display. But Indonesia’s pluralism has been under increasing threat in the past two decades.
The country’s notorious blasphemy laws have contributed to growing intolerance, epitomised by the case of the popular former governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, a Christian who was jailed for two years on politically and religiously motivated blasphemy charges.
Hundreds of churches have been forced to close, even though they are legally registered, and regulations regarding construction of places of worship are restrictive. Other minorities, such as the Ahmadiyya, an Islamic group regarded by many Muslims as heretical, and the Shia, as well as Buddhists, Confucianists and indigenous traditional believers, face increasing restrictions and sporadic violence.
It is in this climate that the next presidential elections, scheduled for April 2019, will be held. The incumbent, President Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”), is widely regarded as a moderate Muslim, a defender of pluralism sympathetic to minorities.
However, fearful that those who played the religion card against his friend Ahok might try the same tactic against him, he has chosen as his vice-presidential candidate Maru’f Amin, a 75-year-old conservative cleric, and head of the Indonesian Ulama Council. He was the man who signed the fatwa that contributed to Ahok’s conviction for blasphemy. He helped to draft anti-Ahmadiyya regulations and had a hand in other repressive religious laws.
Jokowi’s defenders argue that by choosing Amin he will neutralise the “religion factor” in the election and contain the voices of intolerance. But many human rights activists are concerned about the implications of bringing one of the voices of intolerance so close to the levers of power. The mere fact that Jokowi felt the need to pre-empt his rivals by playing this card is a sign that Indonesia’s religious tolerance is under increasing pressure.
Not every religious conservative or voice of intolerance is a suicide bomber – but if action is not taken to strengthen the voices of those Muslims who turned up at churches bearing flowers rather than bombs, Indonesia’s pluralism is in peril.