Indonesia: A Bad Year for Religious Rights

Jakarta, Indonesia - This year alone, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono used 19 of his speeches to encourage people to embrace tolerance, the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace has counted.

However, action has yet to follow his words. The reality on the ground, Setara says, is that intolerance has been steadily on the rise in Indonesia.

The country was shocked in February when a mob of some 1,500 people brutally attacked a handful of Ahmadiyah members in Banten, killing three.

Authorities in the West Java city of Bogor continued to seal a church there, GKI Yasmin, and more recently, the Bogor district authorities have also outlawed worshiping activities at the Roman Catholic Santo Joannes Baptista church in Parung.

Another report from Tawangmangu, Central Java, spoke of the desecration of a statue of Mary at the Goa Maria Sendang Pawitra (Maria’s Cave of the Holy Waters) there last week.

“Cases of intolerance have intensified this year, numbering more than last year, and at the core of the problem is the poor law enforcement by the government,” Setara deputy chairman Bonar Tigor Naipospos told the Jakarta Globe.

The institute reported 244 violations of religious rights this year. Last year, Bonar said, Setara recorded around 200 cases.

Although the increase was not dramatic, the fact is that the numbers remain too high.

Violations cited by Setara included discrimination, intimidation, banning of religious activities, dismissals and arrests, and violators were both the government and citizens.

The No. 1 rights violator, however, was the police, followed by the military, district heads and mayors and governors, as well as the officials at the Religious Affairs Ministry. Hard-line religious groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) were the main violators among civilians.

“Public officials sometimes could not stay neutral in the implementation of policies. Secondly, there is the problem of political interests. We know that religion here is seen as a political commodity,” Bonar said.

Separately, the Indonesian Protestant Church Union (PGI) reported the same trend.

In 2010, the PGI recorded 30 acts of violence and other violations against Christians in Indonesia. This year, the PGI’s Jeirry Sumampow said, there were 54 violations across the archipelago.

He said that in many of those cases the government was actively involved, including in the worst and most high-profile one, that of the GKI Yasmin church.

“The worst cases [this year] were the attack in Cikeusik against Ahmadiyah and the closure of the GKI Yasmin church,” Bonar said.

Anti-Ahmadiyah violence

On Feb. 6, a group of 1,500 people beat to death three Ahmadis and badly injured five others in the Cikeusik subdistrict of Banten’s Pandeglang district.

The local and international outcry did not stop at the brutality of the attack itself. The sentencing of the perpetrators to just a few months in jail by the Serang District Court was well below the maximum of 12 years for assault resulting in death.

The judges also insisted that it was the Ahmadiyah group that provoked the attack by ignoring calls by police to leave their building and instead allegedly challenging the mob to a fight.

Twelve men found guilty of “participation in a violent attack that resulted in casualties” were only sentenced to three to six months. An Ahmadi survivor who almost had his hand hacked off was charged with provoking the attack and sentenced to six months in prison as well.

The wave of condemnation not only came from prominent domestic figures and organizations, but also from overseas.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide and British MP Siobhain McDonagh, who in the United Kingdom also chairs the All Party Parliamentary Group for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, for instance, expressed their concerns about the light sentences.

In a news release, CSW stated that the astonishingly lenient sentences led it to call into question the integrity of Indonesia’s judiciary system.

Human Rights Watch criticized the police and prosecutors, stating that they did not conduct a rigorous investigation, failed to call key eyewitnesses to the stand and erroneously blamed the Ahmadis for provoking the attack.

Indonesia’s House of Representatives and the government responded with a push in deliberating a religious harmony bill, touted as a long-term solution to the religious conflicts plaguing the country and to give a stronger legal basis to joint ministerial decrees that now regulate certain religious matters.

GKI Yasmin church closure

In September, members of the House’s Commission III, which deals with legal affairs, lashed out at Bogor Mayor Diani Budiarto for his continued defiance of a Supreme Court ruling on the closed GKI Yasmin church.

Eva Kusuma Sundari, of the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), said Diani’s “misleading logic is the logic of a sick person.”

The mayor has revoked a permit he had issued for the church and has since ignored verdicts from various courts, including the Supreme Court, which have ordered him to lift the ban and allow the congregation to worship in its building.

He also refused to follow a recommendation from the Ombudsman, despite the fact that a recommendation is the highest verdict the Ombudsman can issue and that it is binding.

The Ombudsman also sent a letter to the president to take over the case, but Home Minister Gamawan Fauzi insisted that the president’s involvement was unnecessary and that the case should be left to the West Java governor to handle.

As the GKI Yasmin congregation continued to face problems in conducting worship, international criticism kept up. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom, for instance, sent a letter to US President Barack Obama calling on him to speak out against Indonesia’s growing religious tensions.

GKI Yasmin church spokesman Bona Sigalingging told the Globe: “The congregation has been praying on the sidewalk every Sunday since April 2010. The one responsible for this is the entire nation, including the mayor, governor and the police.”

He hoped that in 2012, the government would finally enforce the law and push for a deradicalization program aimed at groups spreading hatred.

‘Isolated incidents’

Besides the cases mentioned above, Indonesia also witnessed other conflicts with a religious dimension in the past year, such as calls to take down a six-meter Buddhist statue from the top of a three-story temple in Tanjung Balai, North Sumatra.

But according to a former chairman of the country’s biggest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, the level of tolerance in Indonesia has actually improved compared to a couple of years ago. Hasyim Muzadi said the violence and other violations this year were just isolated incidents, and in general, people lived side by side in harmony.

“You cannot generalize what happened in Bogor. This is a violation of regulations, a [single] case,” he said.

Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali also said he did not see any serious problems of intolerance and violations of religious freedom this year.

“The case with GKI Yasmin is not about religion or interreligious relations, but about a building permit,” Suryadharma told the Globe.

He argued that people of different religions were still living in harmony, for example in Maluku or North Sulawesi, even though religious tension has been on the rise in Maluku in recent times.

“I don’t think there is [a serious problem]. Small [incidents], of course, occur. But all people fight, even with their siblings at home,” he said, laughing.

But the PGI’s secretary general, Gomar Goeltom, said he was afraid that things were more complicated than the minister would like people to believe.

“This is systematic, with the same pattern,” he said, adding that other cases did not get adequate exposure and had failed to grab people’s attention.

He said that although in quantity the number of violations might be smaller today than in 2005 or 2006, when many churches were closed down, but in terms of severity, recent incidents were much worse. And the trend might get even uglier next year if the government still refuses to act firmly, Gomar said.

“There are groups that spread flyers carrying a message of hatred and intolerance,” he said.

Is there hope for 2012?

Zuhairi Misrawi, director of the Moderate Muslim Society, told the Globe that there were two solutions that could be explored next year.

The first is hoping for the nation’s top leader to take firmer steps. The second is to create a new, stronger law to regulate religious freedom, he said.

“The first option doesn’t seem promising since he [the president] has already been defeated by a mere mayor,” he said, referring to Diani.

Thus, the nation could only hope for the second option, a legal guarantee for all believers to worship based on their beliefs.

Zuhairi said the House could soon deliberate a bill on religious freedom. This is especially needed for beleaguered sects like the Ahmadiyah, because it has been proven that the joint ministerial decree on Ahmadiyah has failed to prevent violence, he said.

“Members of the House have proposed the Religious Harmony bill, but I don’t think we really need that. We should steer the discussion of the bill into the direction of religious freedom,” he said. “Can the problem be solved by a new law? Well, at least people will have a legal basis.”

However, it seems that Zuhairi and the public will have to wait for at least another year.

The chairman of the Legislative Body at the House, Ignatius Mulyono, has said the bill is not among those prioritized for deliberation in 2012. He claimed that House Commission VIII already had too much on its hands, with four bills awaiting passage next year. Among those are bills were legislation on the hajj and halal products.

“The Religious Harmony bill was initiated by the House, but it has a long way to go — absolutely not next year,” Ignatius said.

Bonar said he was not very optimistic about next year, particularly when it came to the government.

“Our recommendations have never been followed up on by the government. There was no improvement,” he said.

“The government should have punished those found guilty in cases of violence. That would be a preventive measure, so others won’t dare do the same thing.”

Suryadharma, however, insisted that his ministry would work harder to increase people’s awareness of the importance of tolerance and peaceful interreligious relations.

“Religious diversity is God’s creation. Denying his creation is just the same as denying him,” the minister said.