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Jakarta Post

Religious freedom and places of worship

  • Mun’im Sirry

    The Jakarta Post

Notre Dame   /   Fri, October 30, 2015   /  03:03 pm

The arson attack on a church in Aceh Singkil, Aceh, on Oct. 13 has added to the already long list of violence related to places of worship in the country. Only three months earlier, on July 17, a mosque in Tolikara, Papua, was burned down during Idul Fitri. The two incidents, and others, reflect broader obstacles to peaceful coexistence in post-reform Indonesia.

In both the Aceh Singkil and Tolikara cases, rumors and threats of attack had preceded the incidents but intelligence agencies failed to act decisively, showing the inability and ignorance on the part of security authorities to prevent the violence.

As in the Aceh Singkil case, the issue of authorization, such as the need to obtain a building permit from the local government, has been used to justify attacks on churches.

The government introduced in 1969 a ministerial decree which stipulated administrative procedures to obtain permits to build a place of worship. The regulation was revised in 2006 under the president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and remains in force.

The policy shows that throughout our history, the state has never ceased to be involved in private affairs like religion. To maintain interreligious harmony, the state manages and regulates religion in public life, which conservative groups find useful to assert their vision of public morality and piety.

Following the 2006 joint ministerial decree on procedures to build places of worship, the government established a special body to deal with interfaith relations. The Inter-Religious Harmony Forum (FKUB) comprises representatives of different religious communities and the government, whose job is to ensure religious harmony at the local level, including the procedures to build a place of worship.

Indeed, the FKUB has limitations and the very intentions of its foundation have been questioned.

More than that, the joint decree can be challenged on several fronts. First, it wrongly assumes that state interference is key to religious tolerance. Second, many consider this regulation a breach of the Constitution and freedom of religion, which is a basic human right that is subject to state intervention.

Third, the regulation is evidence of religious conservatism. It is hardly surprising that conservative and radical Islamist groups frequently refer to this regulation to justify and perpetuate attacks not only on places of worship of religious minorities, but also those who advocate religious freedom and pluralist coexistence.

The '€œradicals'€ may be a minority, but they have managed to exercise an influence in public life far greater than their number in society. In contemporary democratic Indonesia, most violence and attacks on churches and mosques belonging to '€œdeviant'€ groups have been carried out not by the state but by Muslim militias determined to promote their own vision of state-religion relations.

For religious freedom to have bigger impacts on reducing violence, not only does the regulation on the construction of places of worship have to be aligned with the Constitution'€™s notion of religious freedom. The authorities must also be willing to act decisively whenever violations of the freedom occur.

While the regulation, for the purpose of maintaining social stability and interreligious harmony, to a certain extent is acceptable given the pluralistic and public nature of religion in this country, it should not complicate, let alone thwart, the building of places of worship of religious minority groups.

Many studies have shown that perpetrators of church vandalism and destruction were those who used symbols relating to Islam or acted in the name of the Muslim community.

And the government has been slow to respond, for fear of being accused of violating Islamists'€™ human rights. The political establishment as a whole seems reluctant to pressure Islamist radical groups because they want to avoid being perceived as anti-Islam.

The increasing amount of church destruction in the post-reform era is complex and the absence of the state or, at least, its inability to act decisively, contributes to the rise.

Of course, church disputes are affected by a wide range of issues and cannot be simply explained in terms of a majority-minority problem.

In several places, such as Bogor, the dispute is between a religious minority and local government authorities who, to some extent, are supported by radical Islamist groups.

This '€œbackdoor'€ relationship between local administrations and radical groups often leads to either the state'€™s failure to prosecute when minorities are harassed and attacked or even its active participation in violations of religious freedom.

My deepest concern, however, is the increasing intolerance among Indonesian Muslims toward the building of places of worship of religious minorities.

A survey from the Indonesian Survey Institute in 2011 revealed a striking phenomenon: Indonesian Muslims are highly tolerant toward non-Muslims, but not to their places of worship.

Among the members of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, the country'€™s two largest Muslim organizations which are regarded as the vanguards of moderate Islam, only about 30 percent object to non-Muslims moving into their neighborhood.

This reflects a remarkable level of tolerance toward non-Muslims. However, 63.3 percent of NU members and 75.6 percent of Muhammadiyah members do not want a non-Muslim place of worship to be built in their neighborhood.

This does not mean, however, that a high level of intolerance explains the intensity and extensity of church attacks. When several churches were under threat by radical groups before Christmas celebrations, the then Muhammadiyah chairman Din Syamsuddin offered Muhammadiyah offices, schools and buildings across the country to be used by Christians in the event that their churches were closed down or if they felt unsafe in their churches.

In response to the Aceh Singkil incident, NU and Muhammadiyah leadership at both national and local levels in Aceh stated their condemnation, saying that the act was intolerable no matter the reason. They also urged the police to bring the perpetrators to justice and prevent further violence.

Of course, this message must be conveyed and translated to the grassroots level to strengthen interreligious collaboration for peaceful coexistence and to prevent such incidents from recurring everywhere in the country.

The writer is an assistant professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame, the US.

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