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Struggling indigenous ‘jungle people’ become Muslim as last option for government benefits

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Being a Muslim has its benefits.

Particularly if you live in a majority Muslim nation like Indonesia.

Hundreds of members of the Orang Rimba, translated “jungle people,” tribe have converted to Islam in order to receive benefits from the Indonesian government after their homes were destroyed by coal mines and palm oil plantations, the Daily Mail reported.

(GOH CHAI HIN/AFP/Getty Images)

The tribe converted because, it said, the government ignored their needs because they weren’t Muslims.

“Thank God, the government now pays attention to us; before our conversion they didn’t care,” Yusuf Muhammad, who converted to the religion, said.

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This photo taken on May 19, 2017 shows children from the”Orang Rimba” tribe — whose name translates as “jungle people”, who have been converted to Islam and given up their nomadic ways, wearing Islamic skullcaps and hijabs as they gather to recite the Koran. (GOH CHAI HIN/AFP/Getty Images)

Children in his community now wear hijabs and recite the Koran, the Mail reported.

Yusuf’s group converted to Islam, the predominant faith in Indonesia, and gave up their nomadic ways in January in a bid to improve livelihoods that have been devastated by the expansion of palm oil plantations and coal mines into their forest homelands.

Authorities insist the move is positive but critics say it amounts to a last throw of the dice for indigenous groups driven to desperation by the government’s failure to properly defend their rights against rapid commercial expansion.

Yusuf admitted that the reason they converted was to get help from the government, as food has become harder to come by and industrialization has devastated their lands.

The conversion to Islam has allowed them to stop their nomadic ways and settle in one spot, and get government ID cards, according to the Mail.

(GOH CHAI HIN/AFP/Getty Images)

The tribe now lives in wood huts and wear clothes donated by the government.

“It’s nicer living in a village like this, our lives are better,” he said.

Those who support indigenous rights think it’s sad that they had to convert.

This combo photo taken on May 19, 2017 shows a young girl (L) from the nomadic “Orang Rimba” tribe — whose name translates as “jungle people”, and another girl (R) wearing the Muslim headgear “hijab” after her family converted to Islam. (GOH CHAI HIN/AFP/Getty Images)

“I view this as a result of the state failing to protect them,” Rukka Sombolinggi, who runs and indigenous rights group, said.

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“They turn to clerics or the church in some areas, because they offer protection,” he said.

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Carmine Sabia

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