On 1 September Indonesian judges sentenced three women to three years in prison for allowing Muslim children to attend a Christian Sunday school program.
Rebekka Zakaria, Eti Pangesti and Ratna Bangun received the sentence after judges found them guilty of violating the Child Protection Act of 2002, which forbids “deception, lies or enticement” causing a child to convert to another religion. The maximum sentence for violation of the Act is five years in prison and a fine of 100 million rupiah ($10,226).
The Sunday school teachers had instructed the children to get permission from their parents before attending the program and those who did not have permission were asked to go home, according to Jeff Hammond of Bless Indonesia Today, a Christian foundation operating out of Jakarta. None of the children had converted to Christianity.
When the verdict was announced the courtroom crowd erupted with shouts of “Allahu akbar!” (“God is great!”). The women plan to appeal the conviction.
As the three women were waiting to be taken into the courtroom for the verdict Zakaria said the situation did not look hopeful but that some day, “in God’s time”, all three women would “walk free from the prison”.
The three women, described by friends as “ordinary housewives”, were relieved that they had not been given the maximum five-year prison sentence. All three were devastated at the prospect of being separated from their children, who range from 6 to 19 years of age.
As they have done throughout the trial, Islamic extremists made murderous threats both inside and outside the courtroom. Hammond said several truckloads of extremists arrived; one brought a coffin to bury the accused if they were found innocent.
“The ladies, witnesses and judges were constantly under the threats of violence from hundreds of Islamic radicals who threatened to kill the three ladies, witnesses, pastors, missionaries and even the judges if the women were acquitted,” Hammond told Compass.
On 25 August the Islamic radicals warned the judges that they were willing to shed their own blood if the women were not found guilty.
Paul Marshall, a senior fellow at Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom, said the case could establish a dangerous precedent. “It’s especially troubling and worrisome since it occurred in Indonesia, a country known for its relative religious freedom. If it signifies the future direction of the country the consequences will be terrible.”
Zakaria, Pangesti and Bangun were arrested on 13 May after members of the local Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI, Muslim clerics council) discovered that Muslim children were attending a Christian education program run by the women. Some of the children had asked for and received Bibles.
Defence attorneys pointed out that several of the Muslim parents had been photographed with their children during the Sunday school activities, proof that they had permitted their children to attend. When Muslim leaders lodged a complaint, however, the parents refused to testify in support of the women.
No witnesses testified or provided evidence of the charges that the women had lied, deceived, or forced the children into changing their religion. Witnesses who testified against the women had no first-hand knowledge of the educational program and were speaking from hearsay.
The “Happy Sunday” program was established to meet legal requirements for a local elementary school which asked Zakaria, who pastors the Christian Church of David’s Camp in Harguelis, West Java to establish it. The women launched the program in September 2003.