Constitutional Court Taking Up Indonesia's Thorny Religious Row

The Constitutional Court on Thursday held its first session to review the 1965 law on religious blasphemy, much to the chagrin of the government and hard-line Muslim groups.

The law, which dates back to the last years of former President Sukarno’s rule, was challenged in 2009 by the late President Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid and several human rights organizations, including Imparsial and the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (YLBHI).

The petitioners argued that the Law on the Prevention of Blasphemy and Abuse of Religion, which carried jail terms of up to five years, was unconstitutional as it inhibited religious freedom by recognizing only six religions: Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism, while rejecting all others. The law bans people from publicly espousing or gathering popular support in favor of certain religious interpretations and forces citizens to follow only one of six state-sanctioned religions.

Hendardi, the chairman of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, one of the plaintiffs, said 200 human rights violations occurred in 2009 because the law had been abused as an excuse to intimidate Christians and Muslim splinter groups.

“The 1945 Constitution guarantees freedom of religion or belief, yet these rights are neglected and not enforced,” Hendardi said. “Meanwhile, there are people who are forced to practice their religion in secrecy out of fear of intimidation.”

Hendardi highlighted the plight of the Ahmadiyah, a Muslim sect who he is says is constantly threatened and pushed to return to mainstream Islam.

The law, however, has ardent defenders. In front of the court, at least 200 members of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), the Indonesian Clerics Forum (FUI) and Hizbut Taher Indonesia rallied to condemn the judicial review, saying “religion must be kept pure and safe from blasphemous acts.”

Equally as vocal in rejecting the review, Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali said the law had guaranteed every Indonesian’s right to choose their faith .

“Even the plaintiffs have religions, so their constitutional rights have been granted and ensured by the government,” Suryadharma told the court, to the cheers of FPI members attending the hearing.

“If the law didn’t exist, there would be no protection against those who obstruct someone from performing religious activities and those who disrespect religion.”

Justice and Human Rights Minister Patrialis Akbar told the court that reviewing the law would do more harm than good.

“The government fears that there would be horizontal conflicts should the law be annulled or changed,” he said. “[Social] friction would increase if people were allowed to make their own loose interpretations of religion.”

Also among the defense were several members of the House of Representatives, including Prosperous Justice Party (PKS) lawmaker Adang Daradjatun and Ruhut Sitompul, a Democrat.

The court’s chief of administrative affairs, Kasianur Sidahuruk, said that 31 experts had been invited to speak including former Constitutional Court chief Jimly Asshiddiqie and former Justice Minister Yusril Ihza Mahendra. The lawyer said the plaintiffs would present eight expert witnesses including prominent Catholic priest Frans Magnis-Suseno and cultural expert Arswendo Atmowiloto.

The government has also prepared experts including former Supreme Court chief Bagir Manan and former Speaker of the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR) Lukman Hakim Syaifuddin.

The hearing is to resume on Thursday.