'Discriminatory' religion decree condemned

Christian organizations have agreed on a plan to file a class action against the government for maintaining a joint decree on the construction of places of worship.

They insisted that the decree, issued in 1969 by then religious affairs minister Mohammad Dahlan and home affairs minister Amir Machmud, went against human rights and principles of religious freedom.

"The decree is contrary to Article 29 of the Constitution, which guarantees citizens the right to choose their belief and perform their religious duties," Indonesian Communion of Churches chairman Nathan Setiabudi said.

Joint ministerial decree No.1/BER/mdn-mag/1969, on the government's responsibility to regulate in an orderly manner the construction of places of worship and religious activities, requires a religious community to seek approval from the local administration in the event that a place of worship is built. The local authorities can consult leaders of other religious communities or organizations before approving the proposal.

Nathan said the consultation forum was in many cases considered compulsory.

"Very often, consultation was carried out with the intention of registering objection to the construction of places of worship," said Nathan.

Muslims account for about 85 percent of the country's population of 215 million, making Indonesia the world's largest Muslim country.

A man, who requested anonymity, told The Jakarta Post he had been waiting for more than 10 years to build a church in Bandung.

"We were told that some 30 people in the neighborhood opposed our plan to build a church, but subsequently we discovered that more than 300 people had signed a petition demanding the plan be scrapped," the man said.

He later learned that the additional signatories were people outside the neighborhood.

The lawyer representing Christian organizations, Habiburokhman, said he would file the class action with the Central Jakarta District Court at the end of this month.

"We shall ask the government to revoke the ministerial decree and apologize to affected citizens," he said.

He said his clients had dropped their plan to seek help from presidential candidates, saying they were afraid the candidates, if elected, would break their promises.

Christian groups raised the issue with then President Abdurrahman Wahid; his successor, Megawati Soekarnoputri, has almost completed her term but the issue remains unaddressed.

Separately, Masdar Mas'udi, acting chairman of the country's largest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, said he would study the joint decree carefully.

"If its implementation discriminates against certain religious groups and fails to uphold justice, the government should withdraw it," he said.

He suspected discrimination of this type affected Muslim communities living in predominantly non-Muslim regions, such as Papua and East Nusa Tenggara.

He agreed that although the construction of a place of worship needed to be handled differently to other types of development, the government's role should be minimal.

"A place of worship is a sacred building, but many of the projects to build have been abused. To build a mosque, a 40-strong council is required to make 'preparations' for its construction." he said.