The Jakarta Post
Amid the growing intolerance of the Shia and Ahmadiyah groups, newly appointed Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin offered a glint of hope for pluralism with his acknowledgment of Baha'i as a religion.
Responding to a letter from Home Minister Gamawan Fauzi questioning on the status of Baha'i in the country, the United Development Party (PPP) minister said that Baha'i was among the religions protected by the Constitution, hence, its followers deserved the same citizenship rights as other Indonesians.
Responding to criticism received for his stance, Lukman said it was more important to have discourse on whether the state should be given the authority to acknowledge a religion.
'The Religious Affairs Ministry is currently reviewing the issue. We appreciate feedback on it,' he said on his Twitter account @lukmansaifuddin on Thursday night.
Lukman said the state's protection for Baha'i was based on articles 28e and 29 of the Constitution.
Article 28e, which contains three points, stipulates that every individual is free to follow a religion or a faith and to pray according to its teachings while Article 29 guarantees state protection of those rights.
Lukman said Baha'i followers were scattered across the country. There are 220 in Banyuwangi, 100 in Jakarta, 100 in Medan, 98 in Surabaya, 80 in Palopo, 50 in Bandung and 30 in Malang.
The Blasphemy Law officially recognizes six religions: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.
The law is often misinterpreted despite it stating that aside from the acknowledged six religions, the state would 'leave alone' the followers of other religions, and they were guaranteed full constitutional rights as long as they did not run counter to current regulations.
Emerging in Iran in the 19th century, Baha'i was outlawed in Indonesia from 1962 until former president Abdurrahman 'Gus Dur' Wahid lifted the ban in 2000.
Ismail Hasani of the pluralism watchdog Setara Institute said the minister's statement 'gave hope for the strengthening of religious tolerance'.
'His openness raises hopes for a group that has experienced discrimination by the state,' he said on Friday.
Ismail, a state administrative law lecturer at State Islamic University (UIN), also said that the Constitution should be perceived as a guarantee of religious freedom, rather than something that mandates religion or imposes a particular faith on all citizens.
Lukman's predecessor, Suryadharma Ali, who was recently named a graft suspect by the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), was not known for his flexibility toward minority groups.
During his tenure he recommended that Shia and Ahmadiyah followers convert to Islam after several attacks by Muslim groups accusing them of heresy.
Lecturer at the Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies at the Yogyakarta-based Gadjah
Mada University (UGM), Zainal Abidin Bagir, said Lukman's acknowledgement of Baha'i would mean that it would no longer be deemed blasphemous.
'Lukman emphasized that Baha'i followers cannot be accused of 'religious defamation',' Zainal said. 'It is a legitimate religion that is protected under the Constitution.'
He added that Lukman's political gesture recognized the equality of all citizens, regardless of religion.
Separately, Deputy Religious Affairs Minister Nasaruddin Umar refused to comment on whether the government would recognize Baha'i as a religion in the near future.
'Let's wait for the new minister,' he said at the State Palace on Friday.
Gamawan said that although the two ministries were in discussion his ministry still acknowledged only the six religions.