A group of minority Ahmadiyah Muslims have been holed up in an Indonesian mosque since authorities shuttered it earlier this month, in a stand-off that starkly illustrates the religious intolerance sweeping the country.
The men were praying at the mosque in Bekasi, west of Jakarta, when scores of police burst in and surrounded it with corrugated iron fencing, brandishing a decree that bans the minority from spreading its religious beliefs.
Now about 20 of them are refusing to leave until officials guarantee they will be allowed to continue worshiping in the mosque — and fear that if they do leave the building will be taken over.
They believe it was closed under pressure from hardline group the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), in what would be the latest case of radicals targeting the sect.
In a notorious 2011 incident, a lynch mob clubbed, hacked and stoned three Ahmadis to death in western Java.
The attackers received only light prison sentences, provoking international outrage.
The targeting of Ahmadis fits with a wider pattern of rising attacks in recent years against religious minorities in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, where most are Sunnis.
Muslim Shiites and Christians have complained of being targeted more frequently, and Human Rights Watch in a recent report accused the government of emboldening Islamic radicals by failing to act to curb the persecution.
Rights groups say the government is wary of facing down Sunni hardliners and voicing support for minorities for fear of losing popularity among the majority, a tendency they say is worsening as elections approach next year.
Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose Democratic Party is embroiled in a string of corruption scandals, is desperate to be “friends with everyone everywhere,” said Haris Azhar, chairman of rights group Kontras.
“So when it comes to handling violations, he does not want to get his hands dirty and take on the bad guys,” he said.
At the Bekasi mosque, police and soldiers stand guard to prevent anyone entering.
The Ahmadis inside have survived on food handouts from the local community and slept on mattresses on the floor since the building was closed off on April 4.
“Why are we treated like criminals when all we did was to worship?” cleric Rahmat Rahmadijaya, 33, said through a small window on the locked back gate of the mosque, which backs onto a large, paved courtyard.
“They can threaten to attack and ban us, but we are not scared. We will never leave our faith and will stay put at the mosque until they reopen it,” he said.
The Ahmadis say the FPI pressured authorities to close the mosque.
While not admitting its involvement, the FPI has wholeheartedly supported the move.
The group’s local head, Murhali Barda, accuses followers of the Muslim sect, who number only about 500,000 in Indonesia out of a population of about 240 million, of having “raped the word of God.”
To close the building, the local government cited a 2008 ministerial decree which bans the Ahmadis from spreading their religious beliefs.
Despite a constitutional guarantee on freedom of religion, rights groups accuse the government of turning a blind eye to attacks and encouraging the likes of the FPI with the decree.
“The government has been weak in enforcing the law, so these hardliners have become bolder and often take the law into their own hands,” said Bonar Tigor Naipospos, deputy head of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace.
However, presidential spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said that cases of intolerance were “not a true reflection of the harmonious relations among followers of different faiths in Indonesia.”
“Indonesia is lenient towards Ahmadis. We give them the space to worship, unlike in some countries where they are completely banned,” he said.