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Following a series of religious violent incidents in recent years, the Religious Affairs Ministry has been criticized for not doing its job. Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali is seen as gaffe-prone; his statements have blamed victims for inflaming hatred toward minorities. Suryadharma has also had to answer allegations of ministry officials embezzling funds in a Koran procurement project. Margareth S. Aritonang looks into how the ministry operates.
Founded in January 1946, only five months after the country’s independence, the Religious Affairs Ministry has the mandate to promote the piety of subscribers to all faiths. President Sukarno signed a presidential decree to make this mandate official.
The mandate places the ministry in charge of “improving the quality of religious life and religious education nationwide”. The ministry is also given the mandate to manage the haj pilgrimage.
Among the ministry’s primary tasks mandated by the decree is to promote religious harmony while also promoting good governance principles.
In recent years, the ministry appears to have failed to perform these tasks. Not only has the country seen a rising number of violent incidents against minority groups, the ministry has also been deemed as one of the most corrupt.
A recent survey by a Jakarta-based think tank, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) affirmed the widely held assumption that religious intolerance was on the rise.
The survey found that 91.5 percent of a total of 2,220 respondents wanted their neighbors from different faiths to obtain approval from the local community before they could build a place of worship. Close to 70 percent of the respondents said they were against allowing people of different faiths to build places of worship in their neighborhoods.
Another survey conducted by the Setara Institute, a human rights watchdog, published earlier this year, said that violence did not only befall minority groups such as the Ahmadiyah or Shia sects of Islam, but was also directed at activists, students and publishing companies that actively promoted pluralism.
Setara recorded 129 cases of religious attacks in the country during the first half of this year, 39 of which were against Christians, 20 against private citizens and 12 against the Ahmadiyah, while others were committed against book publishers, pluralism activists and students.
Another survey by Setara conducted last year found that government officials were largely responsible religious violence incidents.
According to the survey, the National Police were responsible for 40 cases of violations, Indonesian Military (TNI) personnel for 22 violations, regents and mayors 18 violations, governors 10 violations and the Religious Affairs Ministry nine violations.
In the first half of 2012, Setara recorded that the government was responsible for 68 cases of religiously motivated violations, both by commission and omission. The watchdog also concluded that government officials were also responsible for encouraging religious intolerance, including Suryadharma, who was once quoted as saying that the Shia sect was a deviation from mainstream Islam.
“We have the impression that that religious life is worsening while Suryadharma is at the helm, his leadership tends to be political,” Setara researcher Ismail Hasani told The Jakarta Post in a recent interview, referring to Suryadharma’s position as chairman of the Islamic United Development Party (PPP).
The ministry rejected suggestions that Suryadharma alone was responsible for rising intolerance in the country.
Muhammad Machasin, head of the ministry’s research and development division, said that it was not appropriate to judge the performance of a ministry by the statements of its officials, even if those statements came from the man at the top.
“We have to make a distinction between an institution and its personnel. The ministry represents the state, while the minister as an individual will not in any way become a representation of the state. Besides, it’s not easy for somebody to distance themselves from the faith he or she believes in,” he said.
Others in the ministry blamed budget cuts in the ministry for rising religious intolerance.
The ministry’s spokesman, Zainuddin Daulay, said the lack of funding for interfaith programs was to blame for worsening religious tolerance in the country.
Zainuddin said that the ministry had earmarked only around Rp 20 billion (US$2.12 million) per year to finance programs promoting inter-faith dialogue.
“Almost 85 percent of the state budget is spent on funding religious education programs at thousands of religious schools nationwide. And even though religion-based education is also aimed at educating students to be tolerant of their neighbors from different faiths, we will only see the results in the next 25 years,” he told the Post.
Zainuddin said that he was aware the ministry needed to devise more practical programs to promote interfaith dialogue. “We need more down-to-earth programs, but a limited budget appears to be the problem,” Zainuddin said.
Zainuddin’s statement did not match with the fact that the ministry has always been around the top of the list of ministries receiving the largest budgets.
For 2012, the ministry received Rp 39.3 trillion from the state budget and is expected to receive Rp 38.6 trillion in 2013. In comparison, the Health Ministry is expected to receive Rp 30.92 trillion next year.
“The money given to us seems to be a lot, but it is not really that much because of the fact that we have so many programs to support, particularly religious education and haj pilgrimages,” said Zainuddin. “The money each would-be pilgrim must pay, for example, would probably much higher if it wasn’t for the state budget.”
Data from the ministry shows that it provided funding for 3,934 Islamic education institutions last year, of which 3,882 institutions were for students at primary to senior high levels.
The ministry also operates seven state colleges for Christianity studies, three for Hinduism studies and two for Buddhism studies.
In addition to controlling these religion-based educational institutions, the ministry also employs 230,766 members of staff in 509 regional branch offices, 5,382 Religious Affairs Offices (KUA) and in 4,527 offices for Muslim marriage registrations nationwide.
Data from the ministry said that 9,909 members of staff were hired to manage marital and inheritance affairs for Muslims.
The ministry is also responsible for the management of haj pilgrimages, which many have deemed as the source of corruption.
Last February, in a hearing with the House of Representatives’ Commission VIII overseeing religion, Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) deputy chairman Busyro Muqoddas said there were irregularities in the use of interest worth Rp 1.7 trillion from the management of haj funding.