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Q&A: Indonesia's native faiths and religions

  • Devina Heriyanto
    Devina Heriyanto

    The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Tue, November 14, 2017 | 04:49 pm
Q&A: Indonesia's native faiths and religions Two men shake hands after Idul Fitri prayers at Sudirman Square, Denpasar, Bali. (The Jakarta Post/Zul Trio Anggono)

Since its independence in 1945, Indonesia has proudly guaranteed religious freedom for its citizens. The problem is the fact that the freedom is limited by a vague definition of what constitutes a religion.

Native faiths are not recognized by the state. As stipulated in articles 61 (2) and 64 (5) of the 2013 Civil Administration Law, followers of native faiths are required to leave the religion column blank when filling out information for ID cards.

A landmark ruling by the Constitutional Court last week annulled the two articles, recognizing native faiths for the first time in the country’s history. Citizens can now identify as penghayat kepercayaan (native-faith follower) in their ID cards. The court stressed that agama (religion) and kepercayaan (native faith) are different but equal.

According to Culture and Education Ministry data, there were about 1,200 native-faith groups with at least 12 million followers across the Muslim-majority country in 2016.

What was the status of native faiths before the ruling?

The government of Indonesia only recognized six official religions, Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism, as previously spelled out in the 1965 Presidential Decree on the Prevention of Blasphemy and Abuse of Religions.

Native faiths were not recognized as religions according to the 1978 decree by the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR), despite having existed in Indonesia prior to the introduction of foreign religions. As a consequence, its followers identified with the official religions or left the religion column blank.

How important is religion in Indonesia?

Religion is a big thing in Indonesia and often politicized, since the first principle of Pancasila requires a belief in God or other supreme deity. Not having a religion or being an atheist is stigmatized against, due to the false assumption that atheists are communists – especially during the New Order era.

Even Confucianism was discriminated against, and at one point it was not recognized as a religion. Under Soeharto, the New Order administration tried to cleanse all Chinese influence in Indonesia, making Chinese beliefs such as Confucianism illegal. As a result, many Confucians converted to Buddhism, resulting in a sect named Tri Dharma, which incorporates Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. It was only after the 1998 political reform that Confucianism earned back its status as a recognized, official religion.

There have been calls to erase the religious column in ID-card documents and other administrative documents entirely, since the requirement is considered discriminative.

What must native faiths be recognized?

Justice Saldi Isra said the disputed articles made it difficult for followers of native faiths to obtain e-ID and family registration cards. By leaving the religion field blank, the followers had also suffered problems in exercising their rights, including difficulties with marriage registration and accessing civil administration services, Saldi argued.

In Indonesia, a marriage is deemed legal if it is officiated by a religious institution and then by the state civil administration office. Followers of native faiths face difficulties in registering their marriages since it is considered to lack the religious requirement.

The Religious Affairs Ministry has until now refused to acknowledge native faiths as religions that deserve their services. Native faiths were formerly considered as part of tradition and culture and, therefore, under the authority of the Culture and Education Ministry. Children of followers must choose to learn about official religions at school instead of their own beliefs.

Followers of native faiths, especially those belonging to indigenous groups, have been discriminated against. In June this year, AFP ran a story on indigenous group Orang Rimba in Jambi, whose members gave up their traditional way of life and beliefs to have access to a welfare program.

To make life easier in a bureaucratic-ridden Indonesia, many followers of native faiths simply register themselves as a believer of one of the official religions.

What are the reactions?

Activists called the ruling “historic” and “extraordinary” in terms of the country’s progress in recognizing native-faith followers, who have fought for decades – since the New Order Era – to end discrimination against them.

Muhammad Isnur, a lawyer with the Foundation of the Indonesian Legal Aid Institute (YLBHI), said the government should ensure that other laws also respect the rights of native-faith followers, including access to employment and financial services. “The effect of the ruling is remarkable because ID cards and family registration cards are basic documents in people’s lives,” he said.

The two largest Islamic organizations in Indonesia, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, have also welcomed the ruling. The Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), meanwhile, has warned the government to be cautious in implementing the ruling, with one member saying that it has “set the country back to the Stone Age.”

The House of Representatives has said it will revise the 2013 Civil Administration Law following the annulment of two of its provisions, with support from all political parties except the United Development Party (PPP).

Some followers of native faiths have expressed a desire to be able to specify their faith in basic documents, rather than using the general term penghayat kepercayaan.

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