Christianity—Roman Catholicism and Protestantism—is the most rapidly growing religion in Indonesia, although Christians are modest in number compared to adherents to Islam (8.7 percent of the population versus 86.1 percent according to the 2000 census). Christians have traditionally been well-educated and influential. Many Indonesian Chinese are Christians. Christians made up about 9.6 percent of the population in 1990). There are about twice as many Protestants as Catholics.

Most of the Christians in Indonesia are Protestants in West Papua (Irian Jaya, on New Guinea), Maluka and the northeast tip of Sulawesi. Most of the Catholics are in Timor. There are also many Christians in Kalimantan. Because the places where Christians and animist live are sparsely populated and occupy a lot of territory by some estimates Christians and animist occupy more of Indonesia than Muslims.

Indonesia recognizes Catholicism and Protestantism as separate religions rather than denominations of Christianity. This is to due with the fact that Indonesia was a former colony of the Netherlands, which fought some pretty nasty wars over the right to be Protestant. Protestants are led by the Community of Churches. Catholics are led by the Bishops Council of Indonesia.

Many Indonesian Christian were animist before they converted and many traditional beliefs remain or have merged with Christian beliefs.

According to “The Dutch sought to avoid European-style conflict between Protestants and Catholics by assigning particular regions for conversion by each of them. Thus today the Batak of Sumatra, the Dayak of Kalimantan, the Toraja and Menadonese of Sulawesi, and the Ambonese of Maluku are Protestant; the peoples of Flores and the Tetun of West Timor are Catholic. [Source: >>>]

“Christians generally have kept to themselves and avoided national politics. They lack mass organizations or leaders comparable to Muslim ones, but disproportionate numbers of Christians have held important civil, military, intellectual, and business positions (a result of the Christian emphasis upon modern education); Christian secondary schools and universities are prominent and have educated children of the elite (including non-Christians); and two major national newspapers, Kompas and Suara Pembaruan, were of Catholic and Protestant origin, respectively. Some Muslims are displeased by these facts, and Christians were historically tainted in their eyes through association with the Dutch and foreign missionaries and the fact that Chinese Indonesians are prominent Christians. >>>

Anti-Christian sentiments still are pronounced in some places. A notice on a bulletin board at a Muslim school on Java in the mid 2000s read, “Beware of the dangers of Christianization in Indonesia.” It said that 15 million Muslims converted to Christianity between 1956 and 2004 and in 2004 “they intend to take the presidency.”

Regions of Indonesia with Large Christian Populations

Christianity is practiced in parts of Indonesia where there was formerly a large Dutch presence— parts of Sumatra and the Maluka islands (Moluccas) —or Portuguese presence—East Timor. There are also many Christians in West Papua, where American and European missionaries have had success converting tribes—some of them former headhunters—there. The Minahasa and the Batak in North Sulawesi, the Toraja in South Sulawesi and people in East Nusa Tenggara (islands east of Bali such as Flores) and on Nias island in North Sumatra are largely Christian. Hinduism is practiced on Bali, and animism is practiced by small groups of people in isolated areas scattered around the archipelago. There are many Protestants in Maluka because it was the center of the Dutch spice trade. There are any Catholics in Flores because of the work by Catholic missionaries there.

Most Christians in Indonesia are Protestants (about 19 million in 2009) of one denomination or another, with particularly large concentrations located in the provinces of Sumatera Utara, Papua, Papua Barat, Maluku, Kalimantan Tengah, Sulawesi Tengah, Sulawesi Utara, and Nusa Tenggara Timur. Large concentrations of Roman Catholics (a total of about 8 million in 2009) live in Jawa Tengah, Kalimantan Barat, Papua, Papua Barat, and Nusa Tenggara Timur. In addition, a substantial number of ethnic Chinese Indonesians are Roman Catholic. Catholic congregations grew less rapidly in the 1980s and 1990s, in part because of the church’s heavy reliance on European personnel. These Europeans experienced increasing restrictions on their missionary activities imposed by the Muslim-dominated Department of Religion (later called the Department of Religious Affairs). [Source: Library of Congress]

According to “ The Dutch government did not proselytize, but it allowed Christian missions to convert freely among non-Muslims. When Christians and Muslims were segregated on different islands or in different regions, relations were amicable. Since the 1970s, however, great movements of people—especially Muslims from Java, Sulawesi, and parts of Maluku into previously Christian areas in Kalimantan, Sulawesi, Maluku, and West Papua—has led to changes in religious demography and imbalances in economic, ethnic, and political power. [Source: >>>]

Christmas had traditionally been celebrated with late evening services. On Manado in Sulawesi, the Christmas season begins in October with the commencement of preparations for Christmas and the playing of Christmas carols in shopping malls. The season ends on the 3rd Sunday of January with a carnival party.

Many Christians are Chinese. See Chinese, Minorities.

History of Christianity in Indonesia

Christianity has a long history in the islands of what is now Indonesia. The Portuguese introduced Catholicism in the 16th century to some islands but the religion didn’t make much headway in the archipelago as a whole . The Dutch were mostly interested in trade and their version of Protestantism didn’t take hold either accept in the Moluccas and some other places. Mostly Christianity was introduced by various missionary groups that began arriving in significant numbers in the 19th century and made the greatest intrusions in Flores, parts of Sumatra and Sulawesi and later in Kalimantan and West Papua (Irian Jaya, on New Guinea).

Portuguese Jesuits and Dominicans began operating in Maluku, southern Sulawesi, and Timor in the 16th century. When the Dutch defeated Portuguese forces in 1605 and began what was to be more than 350 years of Dutch presence in the Indonesian archipelago, however, the Catholic missionaries were expelled, and the Dutch Reformed Church, a Calvinist denomination, became the dominant Christian presence in the region, as it would be until Indonesia became independent. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Because the United East Indies Company (VOC) was a secular enterprise, and Calvinism was a strict and intellectually uncompromising interpretation of Christianity that demanded a thorough understanding of what, for Indonesians, were foreign scriptures, Christianity advanced little in Indonesia until the nineteenth century. Only a few small communities endured, in Java, Maluku, northern Sulawesi, and Nusa Tenggara (primarily on the islands of Roti and Timor). After the dissolution of the VOC in 1799, and the adoption of a more comprehensive view of their mission in the archipelago, the Dutch permitted Christian proselytizing in the territory. This evangelical freedom was put to use by the more tolerant German Lutherans, who began work in Sumatra among the Toba Batak in 1861, and by the Dutch Rhenish Mission in central Kalimantan in 1845. In addition, Jesuits established successful Catholic missions, schools, and hospitals throughout the islands of Flores, Timor, and Alor in the late nineteenth century. *

The twentieth century witnessed the influx of many new Protestant missionary groups, as well as the continued growth of Catholicism and of large regional and reformed Lutheran churches. Following the 1965 coup attempt, all nonreligious persons were labeled atheists and hence were vulnerable to accusations of harboring communist sympathies. At that time, Christian churches of all varieties experienced explosive growth in membership, particularly among people who felt uncomfortable with the political aspirations of Islamic parties. *

Violence Between Christians and Muslims

Between 1949 and 1996 an estimated 50 Christian churches were burned down in all of Indonesia. In 1998, more than 200 were burned down. The are two major zones of conflict between Muslims and Christians: the area around Poso on Sulawesi and Ambon in the Molucca Islands.

Muslim-Christian relations have been tense since colonial times. These tensions were exacerbated under Suharto by the transmigration program, which brought large numbers of Muslims to previously predominately Christian islands and regions. The end of the Suharto regime in 1998 led to an uncorking of tensions. A lack of authority by commanders over Muslim and Christian troops in the outer islands has made the problem worse.

Conflicts between religions have often had more to do with class differences, particularly between the bureaucratic class and villagers. A key characteristic of Suharto’s New Order regime was the prevalence of security and order throughout the nation. Any outbreak of violence between ethnic or religious groups was quickly and sternly repressed. Tensions simmered below the surface, however.

Sporadic incidents had already begun in 1996 when the New Order still appeared quite solid, with church burnings in such places as Pasuruan (in Jawa Timur) and Tasikmalaya (in Jawa Barat). The scale and geographic spread of violence ramped up significantly, however, following Suharto’s resignation, as the national government became preoccupied with the political transition and security forces could no longer repress long-simmering local grievances.

Christian-Muslim Violence After the Fall of Suharto

After Suharto’s fall in 1998, ethnic and religious conflict erupted in several regions. Security forces were initially ineffective in regaining control because the police, poorly trained, poorly equipped, and understaffed, were ill prepared to handle large-scale unrest. The TNI (Indonesian military), stung by accusations of human-rights abuses, and resentful of the change in mission responsibility, was reluctant to intervene without a formal request for assistance from local authorities. More than 5,000 people were killed between 1999 and 2002. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Conflict broke out in Maluku Province in 1999 after a seemingly minor clash between a bus driver and a passenger who refused to pay his fare exploded into wide-ranging Muslim–Christian violence in Ambon that quickly expanded throughout the Maluku Islands. In January 1999, following the expulsion of Ambonese gangs from Jakarta to Ambon, as well as the breakdown of informal ethnic power-sharing agreements in Maluku Province, a minor traffic accident in Ambon exploded into terrible and sustained violence between Muslims and Christians in that city. Over the next three years, several thousand members of both communities were killed, and parts of the city became no-go zones for one group or the other. Extremist Muslim groups such as Laskar Jihad—allegedly supported by like-minded senior military officers— flocked to Ambon and played a major role in the dramatic expansion of violence in that city. *

The violence that erupted in Kalimantan Barat was even more horrific, as indigenous (Christian) Dayaks in rural Sambas District went on a rampage against Muslim Madurese in-migrants who had taken a prominent role in local commerce and agriculture. Hundreds were killed, some of their severed heads left on poles as a warning to others, and many houses burned to the ground. *

Islamic militants in Jakarta called for jihad to support their coreligionists on the islands. During the same period, Muslim–Christian violence flared in Tengah, around the cities of Poso and Tentena, where Laskar Jihad and the more sinister Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist group had established a training camp. Hard-line civilian and military sympathizers, who wanted to destabilize the regime of then-President Abdurrahman Wahid, collaborated to organize, train, equip, and arm the Laskar Jihad (Jihad Militia) and arranged the unimpeded transfer of several thousand members of the militia to both Ambon and Poso. This caused a major escalation of the conflict. The government declared a civil emergency, one step short of martial law. At the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, this conflict continues to fester, with sporadic incidents of violence by one community on the other.

Many of these conflicts appear, on the surface, to be between ethnic or religious communities, particularly Muslims and Christians. However, deeper analysis reveals that very localized struggles over political and economic power are the underlying cause. Unfortunately, these political and economic struggles have often been framed by conflict entrepreneurs as being rooted in ethnic or religious cleavages, making it easier to mobilize communities against one another. External forces have also exacerbated such conflicts. In Ambon, security forces were perceived as taking sides, the army with Muslim communities and police mobile brigades with Christian communities.

See Chinese and Christians and Violence, and the Moluccas, Minorities.

Peace Agreements That Ended the Christian-Muslim Violence in Ambon and Poso

In February 2002, leaders of the Christian and Muslim communities in Poso and Maluku Province signed two separate peace agreements aimed at ending three years of sectarian fighting. Both agreements were brokered by Muhammad Yusuf Kalla, who, two years later, was elected vice president of Indonesia. The level of conflict quickly fell, but sporadic violence remained endemic to the entire region. [Source: Library of Congress *]

Yusuf Kalla gained greater political prominence when, as coordinating minister of public welfare in President Megawati’s cabinet, he helped mediate negotiations to resolve the longer-running of these conflicts in Poso and Ambon. The resulting agreements were called Malino I (for Poso) and Malino II (for Ambon), after the location of the negotiations. Malino II has largely held, but peace has not yet fully returned to Poso. Kalla trumpeted his role in these accords in helping Yudhoyono win the 2004 presidential election and drew on these experiences in dealings with Aceh as vice president.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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