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Although Christianity is the second-largest religion in Indonesia, it only forms a minority in the country. Around ten percent of the Indonesian population is currently counted as Christian; a percentage which - in absolute terms - constitutes approximately 23.5 million people. Indonesians have the custom to separate Catholicism from Christianity. For Indonesians the term Christian or Christianity actually refers to Protestantism, whereas Catholicism is treated as a separate religion. In line with Western tradition we will apply the term Christianity (or Christian, Christians) as the denominator for both Protestantism and Catholicism because the essence of both streams is the same: the belief in Jesus Christ as the son of God.
The majority of the Indonesian Christians are Protestant. Out of the 23.5 million of total Indonesian Christians, approximately 16.5 million adhere to the Protestant stream, while the remaining seven million are Catholic. These Christian communities are spread unevenly throughout the country. But, as can be seen on the map below, most of these communities are located in the less populous eastern part of Indonesia.
Locations with substantial Christian communities are:
1. North Sumatra
3. North Sulawesi
4. West Sulawesi
9. West Timor
Arrival of Christianity in the Indonesian Archipelago
The first known source of Christian presence in the archipelago can be found in the encyclopedic work of Abu Salih Al-Armini, an Egyptian Christian who lived in the 12th century. According to his writings there were a number of Nestorian churches in West Sumatra around that time, located close to a place where camphor wood was produced. However, later scholars have argued that Al-Armini might have confused this location with a town in present-day India.
After the Portuguese conquered Malacca (in present-day Malaysia) in 1511, they sailed further eastwards to find the desired spice-heartland of the Moluccas where the Sultanate of Ternate ruled. Here, the Portuguese established a small settlement. At first relations between the Catholic Portuguese and the Muslim people of Ternate were harmonious because both sides were aware of the advantages of good cooperation in trade. From 1534 onwards Portuguese priests began to become active in converting locals to Catholicism and by the end of the 16th century approximately 20 percent of the inhabitants of the Southern Moluccas were classified as Catholic. Two other locations, both in eastern Indonesia, where the Portuguese established small Catholic settlements were in Larantuka (on the island of Flores) and Dili (on the island of Timor). However, a fall out between the Portuguese (who wanted to establish a monopoly on the spice trade) and the people of Ternate seriously undermined the former's position in the Moluccas.
The Calvinist-Protestant Dutch established their first settlement in Ternate in 1607. They also were eager to monopolize the spice trade but would become far more successful than the Portuguese in accomplishing their ambition. During the next two centuries the Sultanate of Ternate gradually lost its authority, while the absence of Portuguese influence entailed consequences for the spread of Christianity in the area. Initially the Dutch had little interest in spreading their word of God. In some parts of its territory the Dutch United East India Company (Vereenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie, abbreviated VOC) did support missionary activities but in most of these cases it restricted itself to pastoral care for the (already) Christian communities which mostly contained Europeans. No large-scale indigenous conversions were supported in areas under Dutch control. However, one policy was rather clear: when it came to Christianity, only Dutch Calvinist Protestantism was allowed. Catholic priests previously converting locals to Catholicism were dismissed, thus one can conclude that the process of Christianization, which was started by the Portuguese, had come to a (near) complete standstill when the Dutch were in control during the VOC period (1602-1798).
Spread of Christianity during the Colonial Period
During the 19th century when the Dutch crown received control over the area previously under the rule of the VOC, missionary activities were still not stimulated by the colonial authorities. The Netherlands Reformed Church was a government agency focused on serving the religious needs of the (already) Protestant subjects only. However, a small part of its members took an interest in propagating the Protestant faith and established churches and schools in the Dutch Indies. But the real large-scale incentives for indigenous conversion came from a number of newly arrived organizations from Europe in the second half of the 18th century and the 19th century. Institutions such as the Netherlands Missionary Society (Nederlandsch Zendeling Genootschap) and the Rhenish Missionary Society (Rheinische Missionsgesellschaft) from Germany were allowed to spread their message through the Dutch Indies. And as the Dutch state in Europe had begun to become secular, it could not prevent Catholic missions from activities in the Indies too. The separation of church and state meant that the latter took a neutral stance in religious matters, thus missionary activities were left to the private sector.
Although by 1900 missionary activities had been established throughout the colony (except for Muslim regions such as Aceh and West Sumatra), the number of Christians had hardly increased compared to one hundred years before. Only two regions showed a major increase in the number of indigenous Protestants, to wit the Minahasa (North Sulawesi) and Tapanuli (North Sumatra). The general 'failure' to convert locals to Christianity on a large-scale basis was mainly due to the lack of financial means, limited manpower and the inadequacy of the methods used. After 1900 this situation changed due to a new political approach of the Dutch government. Not long after 1900 territorial expansion had largely been achieved and the ethical policy (aimed at raising the living standards of the indigenous people) was introduced. This new policy implied a more direct impact on indigenous society which - among other things - resulted in the arrival of (especially) many Catholics from the Netherlands. With more manpower and financial means at hand the Catholic missionary activities moved into new territories and the number of indigenous Catholics rose accordingly. The Protestants were supported by a number of North American organizations that came to the Dutch Indies in the first half of the 20th century. Generally, the missionary approach in the Dutch colony was quite fragmented, however. In 1938 steps were taken to set up a National Christian Council but World War II and Indonesia's subsequent independence put an end to that attempt.
Christians in Modern Indonesia
Although there are a number of regions in Indonesia that contain a clear Christian-majority community (see map above), taken as a whole, Christianity only forms a minority religion in Indonesia. As such, Christians - thus - have a rather weak political and social position in the country, with the exception of those few regions with a Christian majority (in these regions Muslims sometimes actually have to face discriminatory actions). This general weak position makes most Indonesian Christians conscious of their minority-position and thus eager to maintain good relations with the Muslim community. Nonetheless, with regard to the Indonesian nation, Christians have just as genuine nationalist pride as the majority of Indonesian Muslims and are highly supportive of maintaining the unified Indonesian state.
In recent decades there have been many known cases of radical Muslims attacking churches and Christians, thereby instilling fear into Indonesia's Christian community. These incidents mainly occur on the island of Java where Christians form the minority. Sadly, this situation is likely to continue. However, these attacks should be explained as acts of fear and frustration on behalf of the perpetrators as Indonesia has experienced a process of (perceived) 'Christianization' after Independence. And - in fact - the roots of the problem go deeper in history as a relatively large Christian elite (equipped with better education and economic means) was nurtured by the Dutch during the colonial days. After Indonesia reached Independence, the Christian elite kept constituting an influential force in the country's politics (including the army) and economy during both Soekarno's and (the first half of) Suharto's reign. The main reason for this paradoxical situation was that Christians - being a minority only - did not form a major threat to society. The 1950s and 1960s witnessed the struggles for power between the nationalists, communists and Islamicists, while after Suharto came to power in 1966 (and the communists eliminated), it still took great effort for the government to successfully curb the role of Islam within Indonesian society. In these chaotic and distrustful decades, Christians were regarded as ally's, having no hidden agenda, against the opposing forces in society. This situation changed in the late 1980s and 1990s when not only the stricter segments of Islam rejected the government but also the moderate Islamic streams began to criticize the government and started demanding democracy. To gain more popular support, Suharto (a nominal Muslim) decided to implement more pro-Muslim policies, which included more Muslims in top government positions (including the army). This implied a declining influence of Christians on national politics.
In Indonesian society, most Muslim and Christian communities live in social harmony. Between 1997 and 2004 (around and after the fall of Suharto) a number of regions in Indonesia saw horrifying incidences of violence that were labelled as 'religious conflicts'. However, it is wrong to regard these conflicts as being religious only. The fall of Suharto's New Order had opened up fierce competition for political, economic and social power within the regions; and also among groups sharing the same religion. In combination with a disorganized and weak central government (including the national army) due to the Asian Crisis, these conflicts were able to intensify and linger on. There are also reports that claim the Indonesian army actually stimulated the continuation of these conflicts in order to create chaos in the country as that would give them more political power.