Rising religious intolerance scars a democrat

Not gonna take it: Demonstrators stage a protest in front of the House of Representatives compound in rejection of the government’s plan to relocate Shia followers in Sampang, Madura to a refugee camp, following a clash with the local majority Sunni population in the area. JP/Ricky Yudhistira

As home to more than 240 million people with diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds, Indonesia has experienced a long list of conflicts during the past decades, providing an indication that it has remained a fragile nation despite its status as Southeast Asia’s biggest economy and democracy.

Therefore, the public put very high hopes on Democratic Party chief patron Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono after he won the country’s first-ever direct presidential election in 2004.

The retired Army general had been expected to not only consolidate democracy after the fall of President Suharto’s authoritarian government and lead the economic recovery following the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis but also to restore national stability after a series of religious conflicts in Central Sulawesi, Maluku and West Kalimantan, as well as bombing incidents in Bali and Jakarta that took place between the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Yudhoyono, as the country’s first democratic leader, however, has not proved himself the messiah of minority groups in the country. Reports and data have suggested that Yudhoyono has shown very low commitment to defending their religious rights during his 10 years in office. Instead, he tends to make them a potential target of intimidation through the issuance of controversial rulings and policies.

Among the contentious rulings is a 2006 joint ministerial decree stipulating congregation members secure approval from at least 60 local residents of different faiths and the government-sponsored Regional Interfaith Communication Forum (FKUB) before establishing a house of worship.

Activists have strongly condemned this decree as it is getting very difficult for religious minorities to build their house of worship since the FKUB, or the local administration, often reject applications if even the slightest objection is raised, particularly if those objecting are Muslims, who make up about 90 percent of the country’s population.

Locals and members of radical Muslim organizations have also considered the issuance of a 2008 joint decree by the Religious Affairs Ministry, the Home Ministry and the Attorney General’s Office that bans Ahmadiyah followers from spreading their beliefs as justification to launch a series of attacks on members of the religious sect in the past years.

A combination of the discriminative rulings and law enforcers’ reluctance to prosecute members of hard-line organizations committing violence against religious minorities has inevitably contributed to an increasing number of violent acts against religions during Yudhoyono’s leadership.

Religious freedom watchdog Setara Institute, for example, reported that there had been 135 cases of religion-based violence across the country in 2007.

The number rose to 244 in 2011 and 264 in 2012. Meanwhile, the Wahid Institute recorded 92 cases of religious freedom violations and 184 incidents of intolerance throughout 2012, rising from 64 and 134 cases, respectively, a year earlier.

In its 2013 report In Religion’s Name: Abuses against Religious Minorities in Indonesia, New York-based Human Rights Watch blames Yudhoyono for his slow response to the growing religious intolerance in the country.

The President has most often deferred to others when pressed to address attacks on religious minorities. Too often, he has turned a blind eye to hard-line groups that engage in such attacks and has said little publicly when other government leaders, notably the Religious Affairs Minister, make discriminatory statements that fuel such antagonism, the report says.

The executive director of public policy think tank The Indonesian Institute, Raja Juli Antoni, has also questioned Yudhoyono’s trivial moves when responding to violent acts targeting religious minorities.

When two Christians in Bekasi, West Java, were attacked by Islam Defenders Front (FPI) members in 2010 following conflict over a church establishment, Yudhoyono instructed the health minister to visit the victims and provide them with free medical treatment. “This move was meaningless since it did not address the root cause behind the attack,” Raja recently told The Jakarta Post in an interview.

Despite public criticism of his relatively poor record in handling religious intolerance, Yudhoyono was awarded last year with the World Statesmen Award from New York-based interfaith organization the Appeal of Conscience Foundation (ACF). In a speech during the award ceremony, Yudhoyono stressed his commitment to eradicating religious intolerance.

“As we move forward, we will not tolerate any act of senseless violence committed by any group in the name of religion. We will not allow any desecration of places of worship of any religion for whatever reason. We will always protect our minorities and ensure that no one suffers from discrimination,” he said.

The Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras), however, sees the central government’s discriminative treatment of religious minorities as having reached an alarming level as it has inspired local governments to do the same thing.

Kontras, for instance, recorded that 21 bylaws had been issued by regional governments between 2005 and 2011 to disband any religious activities by Ahmadiyah sect members, putting the Ahmadis under continuous threat from locals and radical organizations.

“Discrimination against minority groups is running consistently under Yudhoyono’s leadership, as he has been too lenient toward uncivilized mass organizations that commit violent acts and spread hatred against minority groups,” Kontras coordinator Haris Azhar said.

Prominent violent acts targeting religious minorities (2004-2014)

* July 15, 2005

Thousands of people attack the Ahmadiyah school and headquarters in Parung, Bogor, West Java, in a protest against the group’s teachings.

* June 1, 2008

Members of the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) attack activists of the National Alliance for the Freedom of Faith and Religion when the latter staged a rally at the National Monument (Monas) park in Jakarta to show support for the Ahmadiyah minority sect, leaving dozens of people injured.

* Dec. 25, 2009

Revelers marking the Islamic New Year attack the under-construction St. Albertus Church in the Harapan residential complex in Bekasi, West Java. The local police question 28 witnesses but arrest none, justifying the attack as purely spontaneous.

* Sept. 12, 2010

FPI members attack Batak Protestant Church (HKBP) reverend Luspida Simanjuntak and congregation member Hasian Sihombing following a long-standing conflict over the construction of the HKBP church in Ciketing, Bekasi. Hasian was stabbed in the abdomen while Luspida was struck on the head with a wooden plank, according to witnesses and police reports.

* Feb. 6, 2011

Over 1,500 people attack a house in Cikeusik district in the Banten city of Pandeglang, used by local Ahmadis as a place of worship, killing three Ahmadis and injuring five others.

* Aug. 26, 2012

A Sunni mob of over 1,000 people launches an attack against Shiites in two villages in Sampang, East Java, killing two people and displacing hundreds of Shiites from their homes.

* June 1, 2014

Local residents and members of several mass organizations raid a Pentecostal church in Pangukan in the Central Java city of Sleman, claiming that the church has no building permit.

Source: The Jakarta Post