Notorious pirates, a runaway Sultan, and being the crossroads of the ancient sea trade: these things help to describe the early history of the Riau Islands! Even in the 3rd century AD, these islands were a major player in the India-China trade route, guarding the modern-day straits of Malacca, Singapore, and Riau. For hundreds of years thereafter, the Riau Islands played a significant role in such infamous kingdoms as the Srivijayan, Malacca, and the Riau-Lingga-Johor Sultanates. In more modern times, however, Great Britain and the Netherlands struggled to take control of the trade routes and took advantage of the political weakness of the sultanates. The Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 left the British controlling territories north of the Singapore Strait and the Dutch controlling territories from Riau, which is south of Singapore, to Java. Then the rise of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and the shifting trade routes rendered the Riau islands largely obsolete, with the exception of Batam Island, just south of Singapore. After the Second World War, the European powers withdrew from the region. In 1965, the area was divided into three new countries: Singapore, the Malaysian Federation in the north, and Indonesia in the south.
The majority of today’s two million Riau islanders live in one of the most remote and isolated corners of the earth. There are 3,000 islands that stretch from Sumatra Island to the South China Sea; they cover 98,000 square miles of water. In 2004, part of the Riau Islands became an independent province of Indonesia called the Riau Islands Province. It is comprised of the principal group of the Riau Archipelago, together with the other island groups to the south, east, and northeast. The Riau Islands as a whole can be classified into 10 major island groupings stretching from East Sumatra to West Borneo, Singapore, and Malaysia. Despite their isolation, God is moving in powerful ways in the Riau islands.
Just 20 kilometers from Singapore, Batam Island in the Raiu Islands Province of Indonesia stands out as an economic powerhouse. It has a unique population when compared with the rest of the province. Batam Island has become a melting pot of the Indonesian population, made up chiefly of migrant workers from around the country and representing all of Indonesia’s 127 unreached people groups. It draws a large percentage of young, unmarried Indonesians looking to merantau, or “experience the world,” before returning home to settle down. It is a free trade zone with Johor, Malaysia, and Singapore, and this contributes to the booming sex and narcotics trades, which are also supported by the large tourism industry from Singapore and Malaysia. Batam is the second largest human trafficking corridor in Indonesia.
On the brighter side, it has become one of the most spiritually open locations in Indonesia, with 22 seminaries and over 300 protestant churches. In 2012, the World Prayer Assembly named Batam a “key island.” A few groups in Batam are working outside of this island to bring the light of the gospel to the very dark and closed islands in the rest of the province.
Pray that the love of Christ will overcome the darkness of the trafficking industry and that freedom in Christ will shine forth. Ask for the liberation of the captive women and children and for God’s movement through the local churches to reach out into the outer islands.
Outside of Batam, Riau Islanders mainly belong to six major unreached people groups: the Riau Melayu, Bugis, Chinese, Minangkabau, Sea Peoples, and Javanese. Other minority groups include the Sakai, Hutan, Akit, Kuala, Bawean and Talang Mamak. Some of the island chains in the Riau Province are so isolated that indigenous people have never seen outsiders in their lifetime.
The geography of these islands, their sheer number, and the vastness of the water between the islands provide great challenges to the spread of the gospel in this region. Other barriers include the dark spiritual strongholds of animism, folk Islam, witchcraft, spiritual blindness, human trafficking, piracy, oppression of women, drugs, and sexual sin. Prayer is the key to unlocking a church planting movement to spread like fire across these waters, igniting a modern day gospel movement.
The Riau Melayu is the largest unreached people group in the Riau islands. It is believed that they are descendants of an ancient kingdom centered in the heart of the modern-day province of Jambi, Sumatra. The Buddhist kingdoms of Majapahit and Sriwijaya predated the conversion of these people to Islam in the 12th century. Many of today’s Riau Melayu retain their pre-Islamic animist and Buddhist religious roots and practice a syncretistic folk Islam that even includes elements of Hinduism. The Riau Melayu believe that their historical identity is related to the Riau-Lingga-Johor Sultanates, which grew out of the infamous Malaccan Kingdom after its defeat by the Portuguese in 1511. In the 19th century, a split in the royal Riau-Johor family created a separate kingdom, which moved its base to the Riau Islands. This legacy is of particular importance to the modern day Riau Melayu people. It’s obvious that a spirit of separation and division is at work in the spiritual realm in these islands, affecting families, marriages, and churches. Intercessors have been led to pray for unity, in particular regarding family splits, adultery, divorce, disunity, and division in the body of Christ.
It is said that “To be Melayu is to be Muslim;” however witchcraft, sorcery, and headhunting are still practiced in these islands, though the latter is rarely found. Many minorities have become absorbed into the Melayu identity and consider themselves to be Melayu, both socially and culturally. For this reason we can pray for the Riau Melayu and the Islanders as a whole, instead of the many minority people groups separately.
The Sea Peoples, ethnically distinct from the Melayu, are another notable unreached people group in the Riau islands. One local historian estimates only 10,000 Sea Peoples remain in the Riau Islands today. They are the descendants of notorious pirates who controlled the shallow reefs and shoals that make up the complex waterways among these islands. Historically they were often hired by Melayu overlords to guard the people and the kingdoms. Today, many of them remain nomadic, retaining their water-bound lifestyle. The majority of Sea Peoples are extremely impoverished, mostly fisherman, and live hand-to-mouth. Major challenges to their progress are the lack of access to education and negative outside influences.
Other major unreached people groups in these islands include Bugis, Chinese, Minangkabau, and Javanese. The Chinese people are the most distinct from the Riau Melayu, mainly due to their adherence to Buddhism; however, some of the Chinese have converted to Islam or Christianity. Chinese Indonesians are often engaged in business and have higher economic status than the ordinary person. Many local churches consist mainly of people of Chinese background. It is believed that there are less than 30 Riau Melayu who profess Christ in the entire Riau province, with one reputable source noting the number is as low as 10.
In addition to the larger people groups on these islands, there are several pockets of completely unengaged, unreached people groups. A small movement has already occurred in one remote location (unnamed for security) where an entire village turned to Jesus. Other islands remain nearly untouched by the outside world. Remoteness and isolation is a major challenge for modern-day mission workers. Aside from the geographical challenge, the issue of transportation and the cost of fuel, other barriers to church planting include the animistic and Islamic religions. The spiritual blindness must be exposed and eliminated through prayer. Church planters working in these islands continue to face persecution and isolation.
by Keith Carey, Managing Editor, GPD
Dear Praying Friends,
This June issue of the Global Prayer Digest illustrates the important role that the GPD can play in the evangelization of the world. Most efforts to pray for unreached people groups (UPGs) focus exclusively on large groups. But the GPD produces a prayer guide both for larger groups and also for smaller forgotten peoples like the ones we will pray for this month. These small people groups are important to the Lord. Jesus said that some from every tribe must be reached before He can return to the earth in victory (See Matthew 24:14 and Revelation 7:9-10).
This month we are focusing on the Riau Malay people, many of whom live on such small islands in Indonesia that we can’t even find them on the map. Missionaries who are familiar with the Riau Malay peoples have submitted the daily prayer entries. Some of our entries are about specific UPGs; but the prayer guide will also focus on the spiritual problems that keep these isolated people suffering and separated from the Lord who loves them. The entries will also emphasize the importance of having the light of the gospel shining in a dark part of the world.
Because each entry is written by people who are familiar with the Riau Malay, most (starting with day three) will include composite stories about people who live in a land that desperately needs the Light of the World.
Please take time each day in June to remember the Riau Malay peoples in prayer.