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The world's most populace majority Muslim nation, Indonesia, is often praised for its vibrant democracy. It is a country of 17,000 islands with more than 300 ethnic groups speaking 740 languages.

But as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Jakarta, several recent incidents have raised fears that Indonesia is becoming less tolerant.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTORS)

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: In the city of Bekasi, outside Jakarta, a handful of Christians head to Sunday worship. But before they can reach their place of worship, they're stopped and surrounded by a large crowd of local Muslims who jeer at them and demand that they leave. This is the Filadelfia congregation, a Lutheran group. They are ethnic Bataks from the neighboring island of Sumatra who have migrated to Bekasi. The standoff is getting tense.

Congregation leader Reverend Palti Panjaitan negotiates with security forces to let them pass.

REVEREND PALTI PANJAITAN: (Through Translator) If my brothers here are the killing type, then I am ready to be killed. That's it. Tell the police I am ready to be killed right here. If it's a riot you're worried about, then arrest the rioters, not me.

KUHN: The congregation is headed to pray in an empty lot where they've been barred from building a church. Outside the lot, signs say Muslims are ready to wage jihad, or holy war, against the Christian group.

Muslim resident Irwan Taufik, blames the Christians for the confrontation.

IRWAN TAUFIK: (Through translator) Indonesia is famous for its harmony, but the Christians should have gathered the community leaders and clerics together and asked us, can we worship and build a church here? But if, in fact, the people are not willing and reject the request, then why must they insist?

KUHN: The police warn the Christians that they can no longer guarantee their safety. The Christians relent, turn their motorcycles around and head home. Reverend Panjaitan complains that although his congregation has fulfilled all the requirements, the local government in Bekasi will not grant it permission to build a church. He says they won't even obey a supreme court ruling affirming their right to build it. Panjaitan says that Muslims and Christians usually get along fine here, but that hard-line Islamist groups have been stirring up confrontation.

PANJAITAN: (Through translator) The majority of the Muslims here are tolerant, but they're easily influenced by the intolerant. Actually, tolerant people in Indonesia are in the majority, but they're passive. I wish they would be more active and say no to the intolerance which is now increasing in Bekasi.

KUHN: Reverend Panjaitan particularly blames the militant Islamic Defenders Front, which police records show was involved in 34 cases of violence and destruction in the past two years.

Last week, the Front persuaded authorities to deny a permit for Lady Gaga to perform in Jakarta. The week before, they disrupted a speech by liberal Canadian Muslim author Irshad Manji. Manji says this has changed her view of Indonesia since her last trip here in 2008.

IRSHAD MANJI: Four years ago, I held a book launch here that attracted both ultraconservative Muslims and Muslim transsexuals. And each of them had their say and everybody, as far as I know, went home safely. And, four years later, the center of Islamic pluralism has become just another cesspool of intimidation.

KUHN: Elaine Pearson is deputy director of the Asia division at the New York-based Human Rights Watch. She says that Indonesia's backsliding on religious tolerance reflects a weak rule of law, which results in impunity for those who persecute religious minorities. This, in turn, creates a climate of fear among ordinary Indonesians.

ELAINE PEARSON: Even senior government officials have shown quite openly that they protect groups like the Islamic Defenders Front. They're very powerful. They're very influential and people don't really want to be seen as working against them.

KUHN: Since the birth of the Indonesian nation in 1945, there have always been doubts about whether such a disparate collection of peoples and cultures could actually hold together. The problem of intolerance raises this question once again.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has appealed to the public for tolerance, but he has declined to intervene on behalf of persecuted minorities.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE SINGING)

KUHN: Meanwhile, the Filadelfia congregation holds its Sunday service in downtown Jakarta, praying and protesting across the street from the presidential palace.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Jakarta.

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