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Lia Aminuddin: Return to Eden (part two)

Raka Ibrahim

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Thu, April 29, 2021  /  12:50 pm
Lia Aminuddin: Return to Eden (part two)

Happier times: Members of Lia Eden's community during a gathering. (Komunitas Eden's official website/Courtesy of Komunitas Eden)

The Queen of Heaven shall not surround herself with bad familiars. As the spouse of Gabriel, God’s messenger, she had to live among the reincarnations of holy spirits. Lia Eden distributed this honorable title with divine impunity.

Her eldest son was dubbed the reincarnation of Jesus Christ. The novelist Danarto, a prominent member of her group, was called the reincarnation of the Buddha, while his wife was called the reincarnation of the Goddess Kwan Im. But what if someone is married to another who is not the reincarnation of their divine spouse from their past life? 

This was the conundrum facing Tri Sugiati, a successful statistician who worked for a government agency. Known to her friends as an intellectual with a burning desire for spiritual renewal, she joined Lia Eden’s religious movement and quickly became a devoted follower. 

To Lia, Sugiati was the reincarnation of Khadijah, the prophet Muhammad’s first wife. Meanwhile, Abdul Rachman, a former student activist and Lia’s right-hand man, was the prophet Muhammad reincarnate. The only issue was that Sugiati was married with children. “So, Mother Lia told her to divorce her husband and get married to Abdul instead,” recalled Syaefudin Simon, a journalist who was a member of Lia’s community from 1997 to 2002. “The crazy thing is, she did it.”

Sugiati is far from alone. “This sort of incident happens all the time,” Simon said ruefully. “Families were torn apart, livelihoods ruined and parents abandoned their children. But what can you do? Gabriel commands it through Mother Lia. So they shall obey.”

As she asserted control within her organization, Lia and her disciples began building a more public profile. Her strange rituals, characteristic white robe and assertion that she was Gabriel’s earthly vessel attracted ridicule and indignation. Salamullah, her religious movement, moved away from the fringe and into the mainstream discourse.

Lia took to this newfound attention with gusto. She publicly proclaimed that pork was halal, held Islamic prayers in two languages, and declared that all religions should be abolished. By the early 2000s, Salamullah had changed its name to The Holy Throne of the Kingdom of God, with Lia as its heavenly queen. The movement became an overnight sensation.

Memories of a leader: The memorial table celebrating Lia Eden's life, prepared by her followersMemories of a leader: The memorial table celebrating Lia Eden's life, prepared by her followers (Komunitas Eden's official website/Courtesy of Komunitas Eden)

What ensued can only be described as a national moral panic. The Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) escalated its longtime war against Eden, reporting her community for blasphemy and “twisting the teachings of Islam.” Authorities heeded their calls quickly. Confiscating hundreds of pamphlets by the Kingdom of God supposedly besmirching religious values, they arrested Lia and tried her for blasphemy.

In 2006, courts found her guilty and sentenced her to two years in prison. Barely tasting fresh air after her first conviction, she was arrested again in December 2008 and sentenced to two and a half years in prison. Each time, she was unrepentant. “I will return to my holy duty,” she declared in 2011. “This is God’s work. This is God’s message.”

But her divine commands also planted the seeds of her downfall. As Lia abruptly told many followers to quit their jobs and devote themselves solely to her, a key source of income for her organization gradually faded. Simon told The Jakarta Post of a member who had worked as the treasurer for a major oil company and routinely gave the organization financial backing. He quit his job in accordance with Lia's wish, and descended into financial ruin.

According to Simon, Lia’s divine commands even tore apart her own family. Aminuddin, a former engineer and Lia’s long-estranged husband, left his divine spouse for good after witnessing the community’s effect on their children. “Their eldest son left the organization, so Lia told his wife to divorce him and marry another member,” Simon said. “This angered Aminuddin. Not even her own children are exempt from her revelations.”

An Empire in Decline

In 2015, Lia and her followers returned into the national spotlight. In February, she appeared with her followers to pray for the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). In May, she sent a letter to then-Jakarta governor Basuki "Ahok" Tjahaja Purnama, warning of a cataclysmic earthquake that would rock the capital. Sensationally, she sent a letter to the President, warning him that a UFO carrying the angel Gabriel would descend to Earth soon, and asking for permission to land it at National Monument (Monas) Park.

Each time, she was ridiculed by the press, cementing her increasingly hostile relationship with the media. Lia and her followers became recluses, barely granting interviews and retreating into their base camp on Jl. Mahoni. The Jakarta Post attempted to contact members of the community’s hierarchy for this story, but was either met with no reply or found that the sources were unavailable for comment.

In 2018, journalists Ananda Badudu and Arzia Tivanny secured a rare interview with members of Lia’s community for VICE Indonesia, visiting their house in Jakarta. Speaking to The Jakarta Post, Badudu recalled that Lia lived out her golden years in a well-appointed if not opulent house, with lush gardens and a comfortable atmosphere. 

True to her character, there was no drinking water in the house. Instead, members drank from three miracle wells allegedly found by Lia with the aid of Gabriel, each containing different healing properties. On the walls were a series of plaques containing Lia’s revelations and prophecies. Songs of praise, composed by Lia and performed by her dutiful followers, echo in its hallways.

“They were very welcoming, but they refused to be photographed and refused to discuss anything other than the impending doomsday,” Badudu recalled. “The house was deserted, and I didn’t get a chance to meet Lia herself. There were just two of her followers, and they told me only her most loyal followers lived in the house.” 

Empty throne: Lia Eden's throne at her commune is now vacantEmpty throne: Lia Eden's throne at her commune is now vacant (Komunitas Eden's official website/Courtesy of Komunitas Eden)

The community, Badudu said, seemed to have retired into a life of quiet co-existence with its surroundings. Its neighbors treat its presence as “a mere fact of life”, while its remaining members hold day jobs and are respected pillars of the community. “When I left, a member said he wanted to go with me to the nearest minimarket,” Badudu said. “He stood in line with me while wearing Eden’s famous white toga. It was absurd.”

Never the most welcoming of communities, in its heyday The Kingdom of God had at most 100 followers in its inner sanctum. By the end, Simon claimed Lia’s followers had shrunk to around 20 people, with only three actively contributing to the community’s financial future. Their brief flirtation with notoriety, though, has secured their place in Indonesian folklore. 

“They opened the door to other new religious movements in Indonesia,” said Halili Hasan, an executive director at religious diversity research group Setara Institute. “Eden created a space, however small, for new expressions of religion. Other sects after them were emboldened by their actions and became part of the public discourse, not just the fringe.”

Her death, reportedly due to complications from a stroke, has left question marks over the organization’s future. In an official statement, her followers announced that there would be “no more revelations”, and that nobody in her community would be appointed as her successor. 

Tellingly, they revealed that before her death, Lia had finished writing a series of “heavenly holy books”, including five editions of “Theology for Pancasila” and a book called “The Theory of Everything.”

“I asked them once, can you truly survive with so few people in your community?” Simon recalled. “They said, don’t look at what we have now. Think about us in several centuries. Jesus had only twelve disciples, and look where it got him now.”