Religious intolerance in Indonesia goes up a notch

Brace yourself to see more discrimination and persecution of religious minorities in Indonesia, after the House of Representatives formally re-endorsed a law limiting the number of religions recognised by the state to only six.

While this policy has been in place since the 1950s, last week’s amendment of the 2004 Civil Administration Law takes place at a time when religious intolerance is on the rise.

Article 64 of the law retains the requirement that religious affiliation be declared on your ID card. The choice is between Islam, Christianity, Roman Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism or Confucianism. Otherwise, you can state “other”.

This policy has been the source of institutionalised discrimination against people whose faiths fall outside the six recognised religions. In recent years, these discriminatory practices have moved up a notch to outright persecution against many religious minorities.

The deliberation of the civil administration bill provided Indonesia with a golden opportunity to amend one of the biggest anomalies in the nation’s life since its founding: The lack of freedom of religion fully guaranteed by Article 28 of the 1945 Constitution.

This has also been a dark spot in Indonesia’s march toward democracy. Removing Article 64 would have done the trick.

Sadly, no faction in the House took the opportunity to eliminate this institutionalised discrimination, even when it was clearly in contravention to the spirit of the Constitution, democracy and the nation’s long held motto Bhinneka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity).

Religious intolerance, including discrimination and persecution against religious minorities, is a problem many politicians and government officials would rather ignore.

This is despite repeated warnings from civil rights groups at home and abroad about the dangers of religious intolerance.

The UN Human Rights Committee questioned Indonesia’s commitment to protecting religious freedom in June when it reviewed the government’s report on compliance with the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Indonesia signed and ratified in 2006.

The practice of the government to recognise only certain religions, even if only for administrative purposes, cannot be anything but discriminatory. In practice, those who put “other” on their ID cards would be denied or have difficulties accessing public services, such as registering marriage or inheritance.

Many have opted to choose one of the six religions, even when this goes against their belief, simply to secure public services. Others decided to risk it, and are now paying the price.

According to the Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace (ICRP), during the 2010 population census, as many as 270,000 people out of Indonesia’s population of 237 million listed “other” as their religion. The real number is much higher.

Indonesia is home to the largest Muslim community in the world and it also has pockets of Christianity and Roman Catholicism in parts of the archipelago, Hinduism primarily in Bali and Buddhism and Confucianism primarily among its ethnic Chinese.

The ICRP also counts as many as 245 non-denomination a faith organizations across the country, mostly indigenous beliefs that predated the arrival of imported religions from the Middle East and India.

There are also smaller religions like Bahai and Judaism, and smaller Islamic sects that the majority Sunni Muslims consider heretical, like the Shia and Ahmadiyah.

The last known Jewish synagogue in Indonesia in the East Java city of Surabaya was demolished earlier this year as intolerance against religious minorities intensified throughout the country. Other groups recently singled out for persecution include the Ahmadis and Shiites, while churches in towns near Jakarta have been the subject of vandalism and forced closures.

Many of these violent acts of persecution were carried out by radical Islamic groups, but often, they had tacit if not open approval from the government. At best, the police would simply turn a blind eye when these attacks took place. Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali, whose job it is to protect all religions, has publicly spoken out against the presence of Ahmadis and Shiites in Indonesia.

Discrimination and persecution against religious minorities does not only undermine Indonesia’s claim to diversity, but could also lead to a loss of wisdom, and in the case of indigenous faiths, local wisdom.

The faith of people in Borneo or in Papua’s forests, for example, has developed to ensure harmony and conformity with the environment. In comparison, Islam and other major religions are “neutral” to the forests and have not spoken out against massive deforestation.

The UK national newspaper The Guardian last week reported on Islam being the target of discrimination and persecution in Angola, as it failed to make the cut as a recognised state religion. Angola has recently seen its fair share of attacks on its Muslim population and the burning of mosques, according to the report.

The piece sounds eerily familiar to Indonesia, where instead, Muslims are the ones doing the persecuting.

Indonesian politicians, government officials and Muslim leaders would do well to read and follow the Angola story and reconsider this policy of limiting the number of recognised religions.