Jakarta - Indonesia has experienced a "sharp uptick" in religiously motivated violence, with Islamic gangs regularly attacking Christian churches as well as "deviant sects" of their own faith, a strongly worded new report has warned.
The report by Human Rights Watch warns that the Indonesian Government, police and military are "passively, and sometimes actively" condoning these new extremists, in contrast to the way they "wrestled to the ground" the terrorists of Jemaah Islamiah in the past decade.
The organisation accuses Indonesian president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of responding "weakly" to the threat, with "lofty but empty rhetoric".
"With JI they saw a clear and present danger," said Human Rights Watch's deputy Asia director, Phelim Kine.
"Now, the government is failing to recognise this less spectacular but equally corrosive and dangerous strain of religious intolerance." Mr Kine said there were "worrying echoes" of Pakistan's state of siege against minority Islamic sects, and if intolerance and violence continued to increase in Indonesia, "the confidence of investors in the country . . . might not hold".
The report, In Religion's Name, says there were 264 violent attacks on religious minorities in 2012, a 20 per cent increase on 2010. It documents violence against the Ahmadiya, a minority sect of Islam which Indonesia's Religious Affairs Ministry has declared "heretical", and Shiite Muslims, as well as atheists and moderate Muslims. Since 2005, more than 430 churches have been forced to close.
But Wahyu, a spokesman for Indonesia's Religious Affairs minister, Suryadharma Ali, denied the thrust of the report, saying Indonesia was "the example, or the laboratory of religious harmony".
"It has the best religious harmony in the world. We can judge that because . . . we make all big days of the recognised religions in Indonesian holidays," Wahyu said.
Neither Mr Yudhoyono's office nor the police would comment before the report was released.
Many acts of violence were committed by a number of hardline groups such as the aggressive Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), which emerged from the Sunni Islam majority after the fall of former president Suharto in 1998, the report says.
FPI recruits among the poor and disenfranchised and might be able to field 100,000 supporters. It was allegedly set up by police during unrest in 1998 to attack protesting students. Its official events have since been attended by the former governor of Jakarta, the national police chief and the religious affairs minister.
The country guarantees religious freedom in the constitution, but 156 statutes, regulations, decrees and by-laws subject "minority religions to official discrimination", They include the 1965 blasphemy law, the 2006 ministerial decree on building houses of worship and the 2008 anti-Ahmadiyah decree.
In recent years the judicial system has often taken a harder line against minorities who are the victims of religious violence than against the perpetrators.
In 2011, when five Ahmadiyah followers were injured and three killed by an Islamist mob, police stood by, smoking and watching. The killers were not charged with murder, but "assault causing death" and were given sentences of six months or less. An Ahmadiya survivor and witness in their prosecution was later charged with provoking the attack and also given a six-month jail sentence.
A professed atheist, Alexander Aan, was last year sentenced to prison after being attacked by a mob, none of whom was punished.
But Wahyu, the spokesman from the Religious Affairs Ministry, one of the best-funded and most powerful ministries in the government, denied that recent controversies signalled a problem.
A Christian church barred by local officials from opening despite a Supreme Court ruling was "not about religious tolerance, it's a land dispute"; violence against Ahmadiyah was not a religious problem because, "it's not a religion, it's a sect"; and a violent attack on a Shiite group in East Java was simply "a personal problem, it's not about religion", Wahyu said.