Wednesday, April 5, 2017

RLPB 401. Turkey and Indonesia: Islamic zeal to soar over Easter

Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin | RLPB 401 | Wed 05 Apr 2017

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by Elizabeth Kendal

This RLPB is a little longer than usual as it covers two situations over which we must watch and pray from now, through Easter and beyond. [Next week's RLPB will simply consist of a short Easter devotion.] Whilst some might consider this bulletin alarmist, it arises out of a deep, evidence and experienced-based conviction that the situations in both Turkey and Jakarta are potentially explosive with serious implications for the church. So the call is to watch and pray.


Turkey will hold a constitutional referendum on Easter (Resurrection) Sunday 16 April. If passed, the position of prime minister will be abolished and the president will gain sweeping executive powers, including the right to veto legislation, dissolve parliament, appoint 12 of the 15 justices of the Constitutional Court and run for three 5-year terms, all while enjoying the guarantee of life-long immunity from prosecution. Pre-polling indicates that the vote will be extremely close. Though youths are overwhelmingly pro-'yes', they are expressing also a reluctance to vote. It is to be expected, therefore, that President Erdogan will play the ultra-nationalist ethnic and religious cards relentlessly. Of all the issues that could be exploited for political gain, surely none is as powerful or as sensitive as the issue of Hagia Sophia.

6th Century mosaic inside Hagia Sophia
Emperor Justinian (l) with his offering of Hagia Sophia
Emperor Constantine (r) with his offering of the city (Constantinople).

Istanbul's Hagia Sophia (Church of Holy Wisdom) was built by Roman Emperor Justinian in the 6th Century after the original church, founded by Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century, was destroyed by fire in 532. Dedicated on 27 December 537, Justinian's Hagia Sophia remains an architectural masterpiece, its dome still unsurpassed. Long the greatest church in the world's greatest city (Constantinople), Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman Islamic conquest of 1453. In November 1934, having already abolished the Caliphate, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk announced that Hagia Sophia would be converted into a Museum, its doors first opening to tourists on 1 February 1935.

The Islamist campaign to restore Hagia Sophia as a fully operational mosque has gathered momentum under Erdogan, who yearns to be Caliph, the leader of Muslims. During Ramadan 2016 (6 June to 5 July), Qur'an recitations were performed at Hagia Sophia for the first time in 81 years. In October, Turkey's powerful ministry of religious affairs (Diyanet) installed Onder Soy as Hagia Sophia's first imam in 81 years, although at this stage Soy's primary responsibility is to oversee the Hunkar Kasri site next door, a former sultan's 'mini palace'. The appointment is purely political.

President Erdogan, 3 April, Rize.
This year Ramadan will extend from Friday 26 May to 24 June, meaning Conquest Day (29 May) -- when Turks celebrate the day Constantinople fell to Ottoman forces -- will be celebrated during Ramadan. If ever there were a time to announce or even just promise the conversion of Hagia Sofia into an operational mosque surely it would be now, ahead of the constitutional referendum, maybe even on Friday 14 April (Good Friday). Would the promise of President Erdogan leading prayers in Hagia Sofia on the first day of Ramadan -- Friday 26 May, ahead of Conquest Day on 29 May -- entice Turkey's radicalised youths to the polls? If Erdogan takes the path of ethno-religious 'populism', trampling Christian sensitivities in the process, the result would doubtless be an explosion of ethnic (Turkish) and religious (traditional Sunni Islamic) nationalism and supremacism. This would certainly bode ill for the Church in Turkey. Please watch and pray.

Megawati (c), flanked by
Ahok (l), running mate Hidayat (r)

Jakarta's gubernatorial run-off election on Wednesday 19 April will be the most hotly contested poll in the city's short democratic history. [For background see RLPB 395 (22 Feb 2017).] The race pits the incumbent ethnic Chinese Christian Governor of Jakarta, Basuki 'Ahok' Tjahaja Purnama, against Anies Baswedan who has the support of the Islamists.  Former president and current Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) chairwoman, Megawati Soekarnoputri, is imploring women to vote for Ahok. First round loser Agus Yudhoyono is refusing to endorse either candidate, telling his supporters they are free to choose for themselves. Consequently, Ahok stands a good chance of winning.

Unsurprisingly, hard-line Islamist groups are increasing the pressure, ramping up the rhetoric and the volume, posting hate banners around the city and threatening Muslims. On 31 March [313] they held another rally in the city, which, despite being denounced by Indonesia's largest organisations,  Nadhlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, still attracted an estimated 200,000.

313 rally.  Image: Jakarta Post
More images: Pacific Press
Islamists have also formed a mass movement called Tamasya AlMaidah (Al-Maidah Tour). They claim it has attracted more than 100,000 members to date, although they say they are aiming for one million. They plan to post 100 Tamasya AlMaidah activists -- men dressed in all white, women in all black -- at 1000 polling stations they maintain are at risk of election fraud or tampering. Aiming to post 'observers' to all 13,032 polling stations, Tamasya AlMaidah says it will bring in Islamists from across the country. Many Jakartans fear the stage is being set for voter intimidation and violent clashes.

Meanwhile Ahok's blasphemy trial continues, with analysts surmising that he may well be acquitted on the grounds that, as a man long-friendly to Muslims, he never intended to blaspheme or offend. (Intention is a critical element of Article 156A of the Criminal Code as it pertains to blasphemy.) [For more background see: ‘Ahok’s Blasphemy’, by Elizabeth Kendal, Religious Liberty Monitoring, 29 Nov 2016.]  The trial is expected to conclude in May. Meanwhile, Jakarta is polarising and tensions are running high. If Islamic hard-liners do not get what they want, we might see an explosion of 'Islamic resistance'.  Please watch and pray.


* no matter what happens in the coming weeks, Turkey and Jakarta will remain peaceful and the Church safe.

May the 'God of our salvation, the hope of all the ends of the earth ... who by his strength ... stills the roaring of the seas', interpose himself into the politically-charged situations in Turkey and Jakarta, and 'still ... the tumult of the peoples' (from Psalm 65:5-8 ESV).

* the Lord of Glory will redeem the situations in Turkey and Jakarta so they will ultimately work for the good of the Church. 'And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.' (Romans 8:28 ESV)


Turkey will hold a constitutional referendum on Easter Sunday, 16 April. If passed, it will increase the power of the president significantly, ironically reducing democracy by means of democracy. As the day approaches, President Erdogan will doubtless play the 'populist' ethnic (Turkish), religious (Sunni Islamic) card relentlessly. An explosion of Turkish-Islamic supremacy would bode ill for the Church in Turkey. Likewise, Jakarta will hold its gubernatorial run-off poll on Wednesday 19 April. The race pits the incumbent governor, ethnic Chinese Christian 'Ahok', against 'Anies', who is favoured by Islamists. Meanwhile, Ahok's blasphemy trial is expected to continue into May. Tensions are soaring. Please watch and pray for Turkey and Indonesia and that, no matter what happens in the coming weeks, they will remain peaceful and the Church safe.


Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and, After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).