The Jakarta Post
Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali said on Tuesday that the purpose of the reconciliation program between Shia and Sunni Muslims in Sampang, East Java, was to 'enlighten' the former so they would have the same perspective as their Sunni neighbors.
The minister denied the accusation that the government had forced the displaced Shiites, who now live in a camp in Sidoarjo, to denounce their faith should they wish to return home.
'I never forced them to convert to the true teaching of Islam. I never used words like 'repent' or 'conversion'. Expressions I used [in reconciliation meetings] were 'enlightenment' and 'alignment of perception',' Suryadharma told The Jakarta Post at his office in Central Jakarta on Tuesday.
Suryadharma underlined the importance of 'enlightenment', saying it was necessary to ensure they would be able to safely return to their villages.
'Members of the [Shia] community can return home after they settle differences with their neighbors and have the same [religious] perspective,' the minister said.
'The government and the local clerics are carefully conducting this in order to avoid violence that might cost lives. Who will take responsibility if this happens? Please don't put us in a difficult situation,' the chairman of the United Development Party insisted.
Suryadharma refused to identify the Sampang Shia as followers of Shia Islam, the world's second largest Islamic denomination after Sunni.
He only labeled them as followers of Tajul Muluk, who has been declared 'heretic' by the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) and is now serving a prison sentence after being convicted for blasphemy.
He insisted that the process to align the religious perceptions of the Sampang ulema (religious leaders) and beleaguered Shiites was not an attempt at conversion as it was not a conflict between Sunni and Shia, but a blasphemous act committed by Tajul.
'We must refer to the court proceedings. The court has found Tajul Muluk guilty of blasphemy. Therefore, this is a case of blasphemy. The government never labeled it a Sunni-Shia case,' he said.
Tajul, a local cleric, was convicted on blasphemy charges on July 12, 2012, after a mob attacked and ransacked more than 30 houses owned by Tajul and his followers in late August 2011, an attack that killed two people.
In September 2012, the Sampang District Court increased his charges from two to four years in prison
for telling his followers that the current Koran was not the original version, and that the true Koran was still in the hands of Imam Mahdi.
Around 235 of his followers have lived in limbo since the attack, forcing them to leave their home village to temporarily live in a relocation site until they were 'enlightened', as the religious minister has said.
According to Hertasning Ichlas, an attorney for the Sampang Shia community, 34 community members had returned to their homes by Aug. 7 as they had finally agreed to sign a pledge of nine points stating their willingness to condemn Tajul's teachings and return to 'the true teaching of Islam'.
Speaking to the Post recently, Shia cleric Iklil Al Milal, who is a brother of Tajul, said he understood the 'bitter decision' his fellow Shiites had taken as they were left with no option, otherwise they would risk losing their land for good or suffering intimidation.
He said he would understand if more members of the community followed suit due to the dangers ahead, given the 'government's clear stance' on the matter.
Iklil, who is among the 235 Shiites evicted from Sampang, said Suryadharma, who is in charge of the reconciliation team, had also told him that he and other Shiites could return to Sam-pang when they were 'already enlightened'.
Regardless of mounting criticisms of government's apparently biased stance in carrying out the reconciliation program in Sampang, Home Minister Gamawan Fauzi supported Suryadharma's 'enlightenment' policy.
'The government takes a clear stance: ensuring the safety of the people before trying to return them home and maintaining a harmonious life. That's why the government invited the ulema to a dialogue intended to reach a common perspective,' he said on Tuesday.