ASSIST News Service (ANS) - PO Box 2126, Garden Grove, CA 92842-2126 USA
E-mail: danjuma1@aol.com, Web Site: www.assistnews.net


Monday, November 1, 2004

RINALDY DAMANIK: PRISONER AND CHURCH PRESIDENT
Indonesian Pastor Due To Be Released This Month After Wrongful Imprisonment

By Michael Ireland
Chief Correspondent, ASSIST News Service

SULAWESI, INDONESIA  (ANS) -- An Indonesian pastor, wrongly imprisoned on false charges of weapons violations, has been elected president of his church denomination.
(Pictured: Rev. Rinaldy Damanik, wrongfully imprisoned on false charges of weapons violations, outside his cell in the Central Sulawesi prison. Credit: Jubliee Campaign).

Based on a conversation with Ibu Mona Saroninsong, of the Crisis Center, Sulawesi, Indonesia on October18, Ian Freestone (ian@rnc.org.au),  reports for Jubilee Campaign, that Rev. Rinaldy Damanik became president of the largest Protestant church in the Central Sulawesi region of Indonesia.

On Sunday, October 17, Rev. Rinaldy Damanik, imprisoned for three years on a trumped-up charge of "carrying illegal weapons," was elected by an overwhelming majority as President of his Church, the GKST (Gereja Kristen Sulawesi Tengah / Christian Church of Central Sulawesi). The GKST is the largest Protestant church body in the Central Sulawesi region.

Freestone says that Prison authorities, together with authorities in Jakarta, granted Rev. Damanik special leave between October 14 and 18 to attend the Church meeting held at Damanik's hometown of Tentena, Central Sulawesi.

Rev. Damanik left the prison under tight security with local media agreeing not to publicize his leave from the prison and his presence in Tentena, Freestone said.

He said there were concerns that some troublemakers may have used the occasion to create tension and conflict.

Coincidentally, there was unrest in Central Sulawesi over the weekend with several people killed, but this had nothing to do with Damanik's short release, Jubilee Campaign reported.

Freestone said there had been discussions with Rev. Damanik during the year regarding the upcoming election.

“He made it clear that his preference was just to be ‘a regular pastor with special responsibility for internally displaced persons.’ His ambition was not to be President, but he added, ‘I will do what the Church chooses for me to do,’ " Freestone reported.

Now the Church has spoken loudly and it is a strong endorsement of Rev. Damanik's often controversial stand for truth, forgiveness and reconciliation, the Jubilee report said.

Freestone said Rev. Damanik left the prison at 1:00am on October 14 with a heavily armed escort and drove through the night to attend the meeting.

The 639 members, representing over 300 churches, clapped in sustained celebration when he arrived and listened in reverent silence as Reverend Damanik presented his fifteen-minute report on how he believes the church needs to become more like the church of Jesus in the world, Jubilee Campaign said.

During the report he reinforced his strong belief in reconciliation and peace. Discussions continued on various issues over the next few days.

Rev. Damanik preached at a service for IDPs (internally displaced persons) in Tentena on Sunday morning and the election for President was held on Sunday afternoon.

632 of the 639 members voted in favor of Rev. Rinaldy Damanik's being their next church President, effective from October 17 for a full five years. Rev. Damanik is believed to be the first church president in Indonesia also to be a prisoner.

Mona Saroninsong of the Crisis Center has been an active advocate for Rev. Damanik's cause and sees the vote as part of the "joy coming in the morning" after a "very long dark night" for the Church and for Rev. Damanik and his family.

Further joy will be experienced when Rev. Damanik is due for release from prison in November.

BACKGROUND TO DAMANIK’S CASE

According to www.persecution.org,  the website of International Christian Concern (ICC), a non-profit and interdenominational human rights organization dedicated to assisting and sustaining Christians who are victims of persecution and discrimination due to practicing their faith, Rev. Damanik, an Indonesian Church leader and humanitarian worker, was sentenced on June 16, 2003 to three years' imprisonment. He was framed for illegal weapons possession. ICC believes this was a politically-motivated trial.
(Pictured: Rinaldy Damanik, president of the largest Protestant church in the Central Sulawesi region of Indonesia. He is due to be released this month. Credit: International Society for Human Rights).

The website says: “The judges in this case have admitted in open court that, after considering the testimony and the evidence presented, the prosecution failed to present a cohesive case. The foremost expert on Indonesian law, Dr. J.E. Sahetapy, urged the judges to throw out the illegally obtained evidence. Sahetapy, an emeritus professor of law at Airlangga University and member of the Indonesian Parliament, testified that Damanik is being framed by the police, an all too common occurrence in Indonesia; and the court, therefore, should dismiss his case.”

ICC said that during the bloody religious conflict that devastated Indonesia beginning in December 1998, Damanik was a vocal critic of the government and Army's complicity in the bloodshed.

“There is a growing consensus that the conflict was started and perpetuated by government officials, security forces and business conglomerates -- who used the ensuing instability to steal the region's vast natural resources,” ICC said.

At the time of Damanik’s trial, ICC said: “Accordingly, those responsible for the conflict are now trying to distract the public by making Damanik a scapegoat and by implication, the Christian community as the provocateurs. For those responsible, instigating and perpetuating the conflict in Central Sulawesi was just business as usual.

"They profited off the instability by raping the region of its natural resources; and they are profiting off the current detente by embezzling money meant for refugees. They are using the police, the military, and radical Islamic militias as their personal thugs. And they are now trying to wash their hands of the thousands of lives lost by blaming Christians in general, and Rinaldy Damanik, in particular, as the cause of the conflict,” ICC said.

The International Secretariat of the International Society for Human Rights (ISHR) based in Frankfurt, Germany, states that in December 2001 in the southern Sulvesi spa of Malino, the Indonesian government mediated the signing of an agreement to end religiously motivated fighting between Christians and Muslims in South Sulavesi.

One member of the Christian delegation to the negotiations was Pastor Damanik, the Secretary General of the Church of Central Sulavesi and Co-ordinator of the church leadership's crisis committee. Damanik has been described by different organizations as “a brilliant Christian leader and precursor of reconciliation. “

ISHR said that amongst other things, Damanik “has tried to prevent Christians from retaliating attacks on Christian villages. He made sure that attacks by Muslims became known and urged the responsible persons to keep to the Malino agreement. He demanded the expulsion of outside fighters from Sulvesi.”

Accoridng to ISHR, Damanik supervised the evacuation of the Christian population, when three Christians from the village of Peleru were killed in mid-August 2002 and after an attack on the village of Mayumba on August 15, 2002. On August 17, 2002 Damanik's lorry was stopped by the police and concurrently threatened by Jihad fighters near Peleru. Damanik and his group were asked to leave the lorry and step back 50 meters for a "luggage check." The group was led away by a military unit. During the interrogation by the chief constable of Central Sulavesi, Damanik was accused of allegedly having transported 14 rifles and explosives. According to the agreement of Malino, such a crime can be punished with a prison sentence of 12 years or even execution. Damanik was taken to the capital of Indonesia and charged with the said crime by the local police authority.

ISHR said that Pastor Damanik affirmed not to have transported any kind of weapons. Both Christians and human rights activists in Indonesia believe that the charges against Damanik have been initiated by the Jihad movement which is disturbed by Damanik's efforts.

On December 26, 2002 someone even tried to poison Damanik in the prison in Palu. The trial against him began on February 3, 2003. In the meantime, Damanik fell seriously ill and had to be admitted to hospital. On June 16, 2003 Damanik was sentenced in an unfair trial to three years of prison, the nine months he had spent in detention being taken into account. One of the witnesses for the prosecution is said to have given evidence under duress, and an important witness for the defense was murdered. Pastor Damanik filed an appeal.

For more information, contact:
Ann Buwalda
Jubilee Campaign USA
email: jubilee@jubileecampaign.org 
phone: 703-503-0791
web: http://www.jubileecampaign.org

You may also contact:

International Society for Human Rights
International Secretariat
Borsigalle 9
D-60388 Frankfurt/M., Germany
phone: ++49 (0)69 420 108 36, fax: ++49(0)69 420 108 29
e-mail: is@ishr.org
See: http://www.ishr.org/appeals/bg_damanik.htm

** Michael Ireland is an international British freelance journalist. A former reporter with a London newspaper, Michael is the Chief Correspondent for ASSIST News Service of Garden Grove, CA. Michael immigrated to the United States in 1982 and became a US citizen in Sept., 1995. He is married with two children. Michael has also been a frequent contributor to UCB Europe, a British Christian radio station.

** You may republish this story with proper attribution.
   Send this story to a friend.