Indonesia’s democracy is no guarantee to freedom of faith

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

(Photo illustration: Shutterstock)

Listening to Indonesian politicians campaigning for this year’s elections you could be forgiven for thinking that freedom of religion is not a problem in the country with the world’s largest Muslim population and that all is well when it comes to interfaith relations.

You couldn’t be more wrong.

Just because freedom of religion rarely makes an election theme doesn’t mean that everything is all right. And don’t take the word of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono either, who in May received an award from the New York-based Appeal of Conscience Foundation for promoting “religious tolerance”.

Speak instead with the followers of Ahmadiyah, the Muslim Shias, various Christian denominations and other minority religious communities. They will tell you, mostly in private, of their fears along with stories of persecution and harassment, sometimes involving violence by hard-line Islamic groups, and often with the tacit approval of the government.

To religious minorities, the fact that no politician has bothered to take up the issue and that the majority of Sunni Muslims are keeping silent, Indonesia is anything but tolerant. The problem is growing due to this official and public denial in Indonesia that it even exists.

The religious minorities also know they are missing out on the opportunity to make their case before the nation during this election year because most politicians would consciously avoid talking about religious freedom in their campaigns.

Indonesians will be voting twice this year, first for their representatives in April and second for their president in July. A new government will be installed October.

This will be the nation’s fourth democratic elections since it deposed strongman Suharto in 1998. Indonesia has since won accolades as one of the few successful countries to make the transition from authoritarianism to democracy.

Its leaders often boast that Indonesia is the world’s third largest democracy after India and the United States, and the largest democracy among Muslim-majority countries. Religious tolerance has even been touted as one of the recipes for the country’s success.

Indonesian diplomats have been involved in establishing and promoting interfaith dialogues at bilateral, regional and international levels. In August, Indonesia will be sure to showcase its democracy and religious tolerance when it hosts the annual meeting of the UN Alliance of Civilizations.

Indonesia’s democracy, however, has one big flaw: It is quickly turning into a simple majority rule, and this means that when it comes to religious issues, the voices of religious minorities are drowned out by the voice, or even the silence, of the Muslim majority.

While religious moderation still prevails, religious minorities feel that often the Muslim majority stretches their tolerance too far to include tolerating religious intolerance. Their silence in the face of reported religious persecution is disturbing.

Muslims, predominantly Sunnis, make up about 86% of Indonesia’s population of 250 million.

Religious minorities coming under persecution have learned that sometimes it is better to keep silent and not draw too much public attention to themselves. In some instances, those who have spoken out against their ill-treatment have earned the wrath of more Muslims and the government.

Typically the victims were blamed and came off worse. Some Ahmadiyah, Shiah and Christian leaders have gone to jail on various pretexts. Charges have ranged from blasphemy for preaching their beliefs to building permit violations in connection to places of worship. Worst of all, some religious minorities have been targeted for disturbing the peace by their mere existence.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of Ahmadis have been lingering in makeshift shelters for years in East Java and West Java because their homes, schools and mosques have been vandalized or even razed to the ground by radical Islamic groups.

Dozens of Shia followers in East Java are living in shelters after they were hounded out of their village in 2012. The provincial government has told them that they would be able to return on condition of renouncing their Shia beliefs and “return to the right path”.

A Shia leader last year saw his jail term doubled to four years by the High Court and later upheld by the Supreme Court for spreading his teachings, something that the court considered blasphemous to the “real Islam”. Two men who led the mob to vandalize his house and attack his followers in Sampang received eight months imprisonment.

This is a repetition of the 2011 controversial court verdicts that sentenced an Ahmadiyah follower, whose house in the Cikeusik village in West Java was raided in a fatal attack, to six months imprisonment, the same or higher than what the assailants got.

Last year also saw Palti Panjaitan, a priest with the HKBP Filadelfia Christian church in Bekasi, just outside Jakarta, tried in a court for “assailing” a Muslim leader who had joined a mob to taunt and harass him and the Church followers outside his church.

This has resulted in the congregations of HKBP Filadelfia, and that of GK Yasmin Christian church in Bogor, another township adjacent to Jakarta, conducting their Sunday prayers outside the Presidential Palace in Jakarta every week in protest of the government’s failure to protect and uphold their rights to conduct services.

President Yudhoyono has obviously not heard their prayers yet.

In both cases, the local government has refused to reopen their churches in defiance of Supreme Court rulings that supported the presence of the church and the right of the people to conduct prayers there.

Religious minorities in Indonesia may have given up hope on President Yudhoyono helping their case. But at least they have some comfort knowing that, come October, a new president will be in power: Yudhoyono cannot return for a third term.

Freedom of religion may not be an election issue, but no doubt the new president will be reminded that their oath of office includes a pledge to uphold the constitution, which clearly stipulates an obligation to guarantee and protect freedom of religion.

Democracy still gives some hope.

This article was originally published on 6 February 2014 at