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Mass sect conversion in Banda Aceh

Jakarta Globe - April 22, 2011

Nurdin Hasan, Banda Aceh – Over a hundred members of the recently banned Millata Abraham Muslim sect on Friday underwent a mass conversion to mainstream faith at the Baiturrahman Raya Mosque in Banda Aceh.

The 139 conversions were witnessed by hundreds of residents and officials, including Aceh Governor Irwandi Yusuf and provincial Police Chief Insp. Gen. Iskandar Hasan. The conversions were conducted by Teungku Muslim Ibrahim, chief of the provincial capital's Ulema Consultative Assembly (MPU).

The sect's leader, Zainuddin, said the idea to convert came to him in a dream on April 19 that he had while locked away in a jail cell. He is facing a five-year sentence for blasphemy stemming from his practice of the banned religion.

The mass conversion comes in the wake of pronounced relgious hostility in the province. On April 6, Irwandi issued a gubernatorial decree banning the Millata Abraham, along with 13 other sects, from conducting religious activities in the province. The decree carries a maximum five-year jail term for those caught practicing.

A day after Irwandi issued his decree, thousands of Muslim teachers and students took to the streets of the capital to call on the governor to dismantle the sect for insulting Islam. The sect has also been declared haram, or forbidden, by the MPU.

Millata Abraham's devotees do not recognize the Prophet Muhammad and only pray once a day at midnight, instead of five times a day as mainstream Muslims are required. Before the mass conversion, the faith, which began in 2007, said it had about 700 members.

On Friday, before being taken to the historic mosque to be converted, the sect members were individually photographed by police and had their personal histories written down.

Police official Sr. Comr. Armensyah Thay said official statements would be issued for each of the converted confirming that they had embraced mainstream Islam.

Many of the sect members were university students, according to a man identified as the group's leader, Zainuddin. Thirty of those converted were women. "They come from Langsa, Bireuen and Pidie [districts in Aceh]. They were gathered up by their own leader, Zainuddin," Armensyah said.

Before being converted, Zainuddin, who is under arrest and facing five years in prison on charges of blasphemy for practicing his faith, read a statement in front of the crowd at the mosque.

He said he was converting to Islam of his own free will, that he regretted having preached teachings that were in violation of Islam's core teachings and that he had led a deviant sect.

At the conclusion to the mass conversion, MPU chief Teungku said he hoped the former sect members would, of their own free conscience, follow the correct path of Islam and ask forgiveness from Allah. He also urged the people of Aceh to accept the converts back into their communities.

After the conversion, Zainuddin once again stressed to those present that he had converted of his own free will, adding, however, that the realization of his wrongdoing had come upon him during the three weeks he had spent in police custody.

"After 23 nights in detention, I prayed continuously in the correct Islamic way. I then realized that all this time what I had done was wrong. I asked Allah's forgiveness for this. I also ask all the officials and people of Aceh to forgive us for this," he said.

Last month, 33 members of the beleaguered Ahmadiyah Islamic sect living in Bogor decided to convert to mainstream faith, following a wave of attacks, intimidation and murder against sect members in recent months.There has been speculation the converts in Bogor were pressured into renouncing their faith.