By Elizabeth Kendal

On 28 May West Sumatra governor Irwan Prayitno - backed by the West Sumatra office of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI, Indonesia's top body of Islamic clerics) - sent a letter to Communication and Information Minister Johnny G. Plate, formally requesting that the ministry remove a local language Bible app - 'Kitab Suci Injil Minangkabau' [The Bible in Minangkabau language] - from the Google Play Store. Irwan also advocated vigilance to prevent similar apps from emerging in the future. According to Irwan, 'the Minang [short for Minangkabau] people object to and are troubled by the app ... [which] contradicts Minangkabau culture with its philosophy of Adat Basandi Syarak, Syarak Basandi Kitabullah [culture is based on sharia, sharia is based on the Quran]'. According to West Sumatra Provincial Government spokesman, Zardi Syahrir, the decision to remove the local language Bible app has nothing to do with religion. Rather, the decision was made to protect the culture of Western Sumatra which, he said, is 'Islam-leaning'. As of Wednesday 3 June, the application has been removed from the Google Play Store.

The Minangkabau are the dominant ethnic group in West Sumatra Province and Bahasa Minangkabau is officially recognised as the local language in the province. The Joshua Project puts the Minangkabau population at 6.815 million - 99.72 percent Muslim and 0.26 percent Christian. About half of Indonesia's Minangkabau live in the highlands of West Sumatra; the rest are scattered throughout the nation. According to Indonesia's National Statistics Agency (BPS), the small minority of Minangkabau Christians live mostly in the Mentawai Islands. Traders and artists, particularly famous for their cuisine, the Minangkabau are the fourth largest ethnic group in Indonesia.

The move to deprive the Minang of the Gospel in their mother-tongue has triggered a fierce debate both inside West Sumatra and across Indonesia. A senior journalist in West Sumatra, Syofiardi Bachyul, wrote on his Facebook account that Islam does not own the Minang language, noting that Buddhism was in Sumatra well before Islam. On the other hand, MUI secretary-general, Anwar Abbas, echoed the statement of the West Sumatra governor, Irwan Prayitno, telling the Jakarta Post that the Minangkabau people were guided by Islam, not by the Bible. 'Hopefully,' he said, 'there will not be a Bible [published] in Minangkabau language.' Anwar clearly believes the lie, 'to be Minangkabau is to be Muslim', without regard for reality or liberty.

Meanwhile, the deputy head of the Agency for Pancasila Ideology Education, Hariyono, pointed out that the governor's move contradicts 'Pancasila', Indonesia's foundational philosophy which does leave space for religious freedom, a right also guaranteed in the constitution. As far as Hariyono is concerned, holy books can be translated into any language and 'every individual is given the freedom to observe their beliefs as long as they do not cause disruption in the public.' Halili Hasan, a researcher from the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, believes that, far from posing a threat, the local language Bible app is helpful for advancing tolerance. He is particularly concerned that the governor's request could set a 'bad precedent'. 'What is dangerous,' he says, 'is the perspective of local political elites and intolerant groups [in West Sumatra] which, for me, are not representative enough for the Minangkabau people and its inclusive culture.' As fundamentalist Islam has taken root and spread throughout West Sumatra, Christian persecution has escalated. In recent years Minang Christians have experienced difficulties establishing churches or even celebrating Christmas at home. This is no doubt why Religious Affairs Ministry's director-general for Christian Community Guidance, Thomas Pentury, is primarily concerned that issue of the Bible app not be 'blown up'.

The Communications and Information Ministry should have rejected the West Sumatra governor's request outright on the grounds that it goes against the spirit of Pancasila and violates the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom. If this action is permitted to stand - if the governor is permitted to withhold the Minangkabau language Bible app from the people - it will set a very dangerous precedent indeed. Let the religious freedom debate begin!


* redeem the situation in West Sumatra to arouse curiosity and draw many more Muslims to the life-transforming Gospel of Jesus Christ.

'Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.' (Proverbs 19:21 ESV)

* stir up the religious liberty debate in West Sumatra and across Indonesia while raising up, energising and empowering voices of liberty for the sake of all Indonesians.

* intervene decisively so the decision to remove the Minang language Bible app will be overturned and the app restored to the Google Play Store so that anyone wishing to avail themselves of it will be free to do so. 

[Alternative resources in Bahasa Minangkabau:

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