The struggle of religious minorities in Indonesia

An ongoing conflict between the Ahmadiyah community and the local government has been drawing attention to what rights groups say is an increasing trend of intolerance in Indonesia.

The Ahmadiyah are a minority Muslim sect who have struggled to practise their faith in the world's most populous Muslim nation despite being guaranteed the right to do so under the constitution.

In Bekasi, West Java, they have been struggling to save their mosque, which was sealed by the local government on 4 April.

The mosque, once a place of prayer, is now the scene of a stand-off.

It is surrounded by corrugated iron fences, its sprawling complex - often used by non-Ahmadi neighbours on Sundays for badminton or football - closed off to everyone.

A group of police and army members guard the entrance to prevent anyone from going inside.

A signboard at the front of the mosque has the details of the three ministerial decrees signed in 2008 that stipulates the Ahmadis cannot spread their faith.

The local government says this is why this mosque must be shut down.

But the Ahmadis say they have never tried to convert anyone and they just want to pray with the 400 or so members of their own community.

Now, 20 Ahmadis have locked themselves up inside the mosque, refusing to leave.

They have lived in bare and basic conditions inside the mosque for more than a week now.

'Hardline groups'

When we visited the mosque last week, we were not allowed inside. And the Ahmadis did not want to come out for fear of being forced to vacate their house of worship.

So we spoke to one of the leaders through a hole in the door.

"Our worry is that this mosque will be taken over," said Rahmat Rahmadijaya, an Ahmadi leader.

"We have heard that hardline Islamic groups want to take over this mosque so that no Ahmadiyah activities are carried out here. We feel obligated to defend our mosque until our right to pray here is recognised."

The mosque was built in 1999 and leaders of the Ahmadi community in the area say they have never experienced any trouble before.

The clashes with the local government only began when hardline Islamic groups started protesting against their presence.

But the Ahmadis are not alone in their struggle to practice their faith in Indonesia.

Last week, a group of about 300 people from a variety of religious backgrounds staged a rally at Indonesia's parliament, demanding that their rights as citizens to freely worship, a right enshrined in the constitution, be respected.

Marwasas Nainggolan, a Batak Christian Protestant priest, took part in the demonstration. He said the government is to blame for the rising number of attacks on religious minorities.

"We've come here with people of all faiths to tell the Indonesian parliament that they must enforce the law," he said.

"We have seen a growth in religious intolerance in this country, and the government isn't strong enough to make it stop. It doesn't protect houses of worship."

Mr Nainggolan added that Indonesia's laws on building a house of worship work against minorities in the country.

"You have to get the permission of at least 60 people in the area where you want to build your house of worship. How is that possible?

"Even when you do get permission, often it is over-ruled by the local government."

He said that up to four churches in his congregation have run into obstacles.

"One has been destroyed, three others have not been given permits. Why is it forbidden to build a house of worship in this country?"

Bulldozed church

The Batak Christian Protestants are the largest Protestant denomination in Indonesia, part of the Lutheran church fellowship.

They have experienced a number of problems in the province of West Java in trying to secure permits for their houses of worship.

One of their churches was demolished last month by a government bulldozer in front of its distraught and desperate congregation.

Officials say the church did not have the proper permit. But the church says local authorities once again bowed to pressure from hardline Muslim groups.

Activists say the central government needs to step in and convince its citizens it is taking religious intolerance seriously.

"President [Susilo Bambang] Yudhoyono's government doesn't have the political will to solve these problems," said Hendardi, an expert on issues of religious intolerance at the Setara Institute, an advocacy group.

"They keep occurring again and again. We have seen the number of attacks on religious minorities rise steadily over the years."

"The people in charge of these problems have a political agenda. Intolerant groups are often used during elections to advance certain political goals," he added.

But Indonesia's government denies the insinuation that it is politically advantageous to cater to hardline Islamic groups at the expense of the country's minorities.

"Many countries look at Indonesia as a success story in allowing the religious communities to live in harmony," said Teuku Faizasyah, Indonesia's presidential spokesman for foreign affairs.

"I can tell you that the president takes these matters very personally and seriously."

He added that dealing with the issue is not an easy process.

"If others can learn from us, then certainly we can update our practices. We are dealing with thousands of ethnic groups, thousands of people who have identities so it's not an easy task."

But this is little comfort for Indonesia's minorities, many of whom say they feel like second-class citizens in their own countries.

As Indonesia heads towards an election next year, the issue of religious intolerance is likely to become even more politicised.

Indonesia's minorities are waiting to see whether their government will be on their side.