Papuan Christian Children Taken to Jakarta to be Converted to Islam

JAKARTA - When the parents of Demianus and Seth Gobay died in their small West Papua village in Nabire perhaps five years ago, not all their six children could afford to stay at school. So when the boys' uncle, Jupri Gobay, offered free schooling for the youngest, Demianus, the family leapt at the chance. The offer had a catch, however. Demianus, who says he was just five years old at the time but was probably a little older, would be taken away to Jakarta.

To him it seemed an adventure, but when he arrived in Jakarta the young Christian boy would be converted to Islam and taken to a strict religious boarding school. There he would learn little else but how to chant Koran verses and preach his new religion.

His name would be changed to make him sound more Muslim, he would be denied contact with his family and beaten if he strayed from the curriculum. Demianus shows a scar where he says he was burnt with a cigarette after one infraction.

A few years later, without Demianus' knowledge, his older brother Seth was also taken from his home and brought to Jakarta. Late last year, the two boys, now young teenagers, were finally reunited after escaping their respective schools with the help of a West Papuan university student.

Their story is more evidence that Christian children are being taken from West Papua and converted to Islam - a practice still officially denied after being revealed in Fairfax's Good Weekend magazine last year. It also makes clear for the first time that knowledge of the practice reaches into the upper echelons of Indonesia's political elite.

The religious conversion of any young child is illegal in Indonesia, and the United Nations deems any transfer of a minor, even for education, to be trafficking. But an Islamic boarding school that both boys attended, As-Syafiiyah, is run by Tutty Alawiyah, a former women's minister in the Suharto government and now a prominent preacher and educationist.

The woman widely known as Ibu Tutty, who was too busy to answer queries about such a ''small thing'', is highly politically connected in Jakarta. Indonesia's Economic Affairs Minister, Hatta Rajasa, has been photographed meeting West Papuan children from her school, and Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali presided over a recent celebration of the school's history. In another twist, Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan confirmed he had at one point fostered Demianus Gobay at his Jakarta mansion.

Demianus was a naive village boy when he was taken away by his uncle on a ship called the Labobar. There were about 12 Papuan children on board, he recalls, most of them girls. The girls, Christian or Muslim, were required to wear headscarves. After they arrived in Jakarta, Demianus says the group was taken to a nearby mosque. The children were made to dress in Islamic clothes and taught to say the ''syahadat'', the prayer to convert them to Islam. From then on, Demianus was told, his name would be ''Usman''. His original name was ''haram,'' or forbidden, the clerics told him. From the port, the children were taken to different Islamic boarding schools - pesantrens - in Jakarta and the nearby city of Bogor. Demianus was taken to As-Syafiiyah, run by Ibu Tutty. For two years Demianus says he stayed at the school before he escaped, only to be caught again and taken to another pesantren in Bogor, about two hours' drive from Jakarta.

Some years later, Demianus' older brother Seth was also brought to Jakarta by their uncle, Jupri Gobay. He said he and two girls were on the boat, and all three were converted soon after their arrival. Seth was given the name ''Umar''.

Seth, like his brother before him, was sent to As-Syafiiyah, though Demianus had already left. The brothers had no idea that they were sharing the same experience. Years later, though, their accounts of life as Papuan village boys cooped up in a pesantren are almost identical. Both were bored with the lessons, which focused heavily on religious studies and chanting Arabic. They were punished for being late with their prayers, for leaving the pesantren and for watching TV or using the internet. ''They told us: you get naughtier if you go to an internet cafe,'' Seth says.

Demianus went to several different pesantren so it's difficult to tell which incident refers to which school. But he says he was beaten on the legs with bamboo, on the back of the head with a belt until he bled, and burnt with a cigarette if he strayed. He shows the circular scar on his hand. ''If we didn't read the Koran and pray at certain times of day, we were locked up and then we were burned,'' Demianus says.

Seth, who only went to As-safiiyah, said he also was beaten. The children had no access to telephones to call their families in West Papua. The food was usually sufficient, they say, but sometimes there were weevils in the rice; and they were not allowed to eat pork - traditionally an important part of a West Papuan diet. When they were sick, they ''didn't do anything for us'', Demianus says. One of the teachers at As-safiiyah, Usman Musa, told Demianus that when he grew up he ''should go back to Papua and Islamise the Papuans'', the boy recalls.

Ibu Tutty Alawiyah is famous in Indonesia for her work with children and orphans. She owns the As-safiiyah pesantren, which was founded by her father, along with other Islamic schools and a university. She was the women's affairs minister in the dying years of the Suharto government and in 2003 unsuccessfully put her hand up to be the presidential candidate for Suharto's former electoral vehicle, the Golkar Party. Her staff declined several invitations for an interview, saying she was too busy. Ibu Tutty did not answer a list of written questions.

One staff member, however, insisted that all the children who came to the school were already Muslims, and they were sourced through another religious organisation, BKMT. But this also appears to be part of Ibu Tutty's Islamic empire, and an article on a website for recent converts called ''Mualaf Centre Online'', suggests she is not fussy about how recently her students were introduced to Islam.

Describing a group of Papuan children aged from five to 18 as ''cheery-faced teens and smaller kids'' who were ''dark-skinned and with curly hair'', the article says many were ''recent converts''. As-safiiyah was one of the schools they were destined to be sent to.

As the ethnic Melanesian Christian majority in West Papua is gradually outnumbered both economically and socially by migration from other parts of Indonesia, Papuans see the removal and Islamisation of children as a direct assault on their identity.

But a Muslim bloc within Indonesia's national human rights organisation, Komnas HAM, has made it difficult for the body to mount a full investigation of issues raised by Fairfax Media - including the existence of a small but active network of agents who seek out vulnerable children. It is unclear if these men are paid for their work, or who might be funding it, but there is a suspicion that oil money from Saudi Arabia may play a role.

The boys' uncle, Jupri Gobay, apparently makes regular trips to West Papua and, according to Demianus, Jupri himself was trafficked to Java as a child and converted and educated in Islam.

Approached for comment, Jupri Gobay said he only ''helped'' family members, before terminating the call.

Ibu Tutty is not the only member of Jakarta's elite whom Seth and Demianus Gobay met. In early 2012, Demianus escaped from a pesantren near Bogor and began living on the streets on the outskirts of Jakarta. He was being helped by a local family when two men came and asked if he wanted to go to school. The men worked for Forestry Minister Zulkifli, who then took Demianus to live in his house in East Jakarta.

Zulkifli confirmed these events, saying his own son, Ray, a university student, had found ''Usman'' and fostered him because ''my son has a generous heart''.

In high society in Jakarta, Papuan children are sometimes regarded as charity cases. At an event last year organised by Ibu Tutty with 350 orphans, Indonesian Economic Affairs Minister Hatta Rajasa described helping orphans as ''one of our ways to obtain a ticket to heaven''. [TheAge]
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