Threats to religious freedoms continue in Indonesia, rights groups warn

    Indonesian government institutions still have plenty of work to do if they want to end religious intolerance, observers say in response to a new report on religious freedom released by the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM).

    Activists cite recent closures of churches, persecution of Ahmadis, Shiites

    Andreyka Natalegawa for the Jakarta Globe
    July 6, 2015

    Indonesian government institutions still have plenty of work to do if they want to end religious intolerance, observers say in response to a new report on religious freedom released by the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM).

    The quarterly report, released on Friday by the Komnas HAM division focusing on the freedom of religion and belief, cited 14 specific cases of religious intolerance and injustice in Indonesia during the April to June period this year.

    Notable cases discussed include the persecution of members of the Ahmadiyah religious minority group in South Jakarta, the closure of churches in Banda Aceh and Aceh Singkil, and the criminalization of Shiites in Bogor.

    “These cases present a serious problem,” Komnas HAM commissioner M Imdadun Rahmat said at a press conference on Friday. “When they happen year after year, they aren’t just individual events. They indicate a greater problem across the entire country.”

    “It means there is a problem within the system, in relation to the state’s minimum obligation to protect religious freedom in Indonesia,” Imdadun added.

    Ismail Hasani, a researcher with the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, noted that issues of religious freedom are still widespread throughout the country.

    “We record approximately 200 events [relating to violations of religious freedom] every year,” said Ismail. “The situation is still the same. It’s not good.”

    ‘Just the tip of the iceberg’

    Representatives from Komnas HAM also spoke on the extensiveness of religious intolerance, saying that their report underrepresented the true scope of violations.

    “The cases that are included in the report, especially those on the closure of places of worship, are just the tip of the iceberg,” Imdadun said. “There still cases that are developing, and those that are undergoing review by Komnas HAM. And there are new complaints coming in all the time.”

    “This only represents a small section of religious issues in Indonesia today. We cannot be satisfied yet,” Imdadun added.

    According to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center on global trends in religious restrictions and hostilities, Indonesia attained the dubious honor of having a social hostilities index figure of 7.8 out of 10, the highest in Southeast Asia.

    Indonesia’s elevated social hostilities figure indicates moderately high occurrences of various discriminatory acts, ranging from the “vandalism of religious property and desecration of sacred texts to violent assaults resulting in deaths and injuries”, according to the study.

    Intolerant groups

    As Indonesia struggles to prevent acts of religious intolerance, the challenges ahead are obvious, observers say.

    “Based on our experience, the challenges to religious freedom in Indonesia are the same as before,” Ismail said. “There are intolerant groups that are increasingly widespread in both Jakarta and beyond, such as the Islamic Defenders Front [FPI], the Islamic People’s Front [FUI], and others.”

    “These intolerant groups are like a virus. They influence the public to also become intolerant,” Ismail added.

    The Komnas HAM report also highlighted the role of intolerant fringe groups in impeding religious freedom, noting the considerable strain they put on local governments.

    “In the mediation cases that Komnas HAMs took part in, local governments were often unable to deal with pressure from intolerant groups,” the report said. “Although administrators were not directly responsible for the violations of religious freedom committed by fringe groups, they were ultimately involved as they allowed them to happen.”

    Interactions between local administrators and religious groups are further complicated by conflicts of interests, said Jayadi Damanik, coordinator of the Komnas HAM division responsible for the report.

    ”In cases regarding the licensing of places of worship, many officials could not differentiate between their function as public servants, and their interests as adherents of a particular faith,” Jayadi said.

    Places of worship

    The lack of impartiality among local officials dealing with conflict between religious groups has also impacted the issuance of land permits for places of worship.

    “Permits that are requested by minority communities often go unprocessed. What’s more, permits that are already granted are sometimes revoked,” Imdadun said.

    “If a religious community doesn’t have the right papers, intolerant groups may try to enforce permit regulations by prohibiting and closing their place of worship. These groups believe that their actions are justified and in line with the proper enforcement of law.”

    “So there are instances where the implementation of law becomes a way to target people,” Imdadun added.

    In order for religions freedom to truly take root in Indonesia, a comprehensive review of discriminatory laws is needed, Ismail argued.

    “Making any progress will be difficult, because of discrimination within the Indonesian legal system,” he said. “These laws need to be changed.”

    ‘The minority should respect the majority’

    Komnas HAM’s report comes at a time of heated debate on religious tolerance and freedom in Indonesia.

    On June 18, the Constitutional Court rejected a petition for a judicial review of Indonesia’s 1974 Marriage Law, thwarting efforts to revise restrictions on interfaith marriage.

    The court’s decision prompted outcry from human rights activists, who criticized the law for failing to protect the rights of Indonesians who wished to marry across religious divides.

    Meanwhile, Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin recently faced a backlash after issuing a benign statement calling for mutual respect between religious groups during Ramadan.

    Lukman, who implored Muslims to not force food vendors to close during during the Islamic holy month, was denounced by conservative politicians and religious figures alike for attempting to promote tolerance and understanding.

    “The minority should respect the majority. The minister is [talking] nonsense. The Islamic faithful in East Java will never do as he instructs,” Ali Badri Zaini, the head of the East Java chapter of the Islamic Dakwah Forum, was quoted as saying by Metro TV.

    ‘Most religiously harmonious country’

    Komnas HAM’s findings on religious intolerance also contradict recent statements made by Vice President Jusuf Kalla, who claimed that Indonesia was the most religiously harmonious country in the world, in a speech delivered at the Asian Conference of Religions for Peace on June 3.

    Kalla, who praised the Indonesian government for officially recognizing six religions, said: “tell me which country is more democratic than Indonesia. Even the United States, the largest democracy, doesn’t have [an Islamic holiday as a national holiday].”

    Despite mixed messages from leaders, observers still believe progress can be made in the fight for religious freedom and understanding.

    Friday’s report notes that “there is a willingness from some local governments to work together with Komnas HAM in ending rights violations cases related to the freedom of religion and belief.”

    “This fact is evidenced by the desire for dialogue and mediation processes [in times of religious conflict].”

    Setara’s Ismail also highlighted the role that players from the new administration of President Joko Widodo could have in securing tolerance and understanding across different religious groups, saying: “we must have hope for the new era. We need political leadership from the president.”

    “In many regions, local political leaders are very decisive in managing religious freedom. We hope that, on the macro-level, President Joko Widodo will be capable of addressing issues of intolerance and violations of religious freedom.”

    “His political leadership is the final key to fix the problem,” Ismail concluded.