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Let’s revive religious tolerance on all sides
Pandaya, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta
Muslim leaders are not entirely happy with it. Christians reject it and Ahmadiyah frowns on it. But the government is going ahead with it anyway.
Apparently, the newly revised government decree on the establishment of places of worship pleases nobody but the religious and home ministers who fiercely cling to the belief that religious harmony should be regulated by the government.
Leaders of the influential Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), which represents Muslim interests and is a staunch advocate of the old decree, are disappointed because in their opinion the revised decree accommodates the demands of the religious minorities.
For example, the MUI wanted the minimum congregation to be set at 100 families but it was then reduced to 90 people. They wanted to see churches that do not hold permits shut down but the new decree allows them to reapply for a permit.
Christians, who make up about 10 percent of Indonesia’s 220 million people, are not happy that the state is meddling in religious affairs. But they cannot run away knowing that compromise is essential to survive in a pluralistic society.
They believe that under the new decree, building new churches will be virtually impossible in areas where Christians are in the minority because the decree requires a permit from two institutions: the newly established Forum for Religious Harmony (FKUB) and the local government – each requiring complicated procedures. The old decree requires only a government permit.
The forum will be established from the village level up to the provincial level, with the membership proportional to the number of religious faiths in the particular area.
Some frustrated Christian leaders have gone so far as to threaten to ignore the decree all together. Some are so emotional they threaten civil disobedience. Others fear that the new bureaucracy would mean they have to pay corrupt government bureaucrats more to get their paperwork processed.
This high degree of opposition is reason enough to doubt the new regulation’s effectiveness. The regulation that the government signed on March 21 after 11 tough consultations with religious leaders is now being introduced to the public.
Benny Susetyo from the Indonesian Bishops Conference is probably among the few who view it positively. He says the revised decree promises “legal certainty” because it mandates that the government shall grant permission to a minority group to build a place of worship if the minimum number of congregation members is met.
“But the government officials should not hide this clause when they introduce it to the public,” he notes.
Looking back, the decree has been a source of never-ending sectarian tensions since it was introduced in 1969 by the then home minister Amir Mahmud and religious affairs minister M. Dahlan.
Ironically, the decree has failed miserably in its original purpose to serve as a legal basis to create harmony in multireligious Indonesia. People from religious minorities in particular regions have complained that the decree is a legal stumbling block in building places of worship.
Religious Affairs Minister Maftuh Basyuni says Muslims can hardly build their mosques in Christian enclaves like Papua or East Nusa Tenggara. Christian leaders have counted about 1,000 unlicensed churches that have been destroyed or attacked since the 1969 decree came into force. Buddhists have also reported difficulties in building their temples.
In a country where religion has been highly politicized, nothing will be able to satisfy every religious believer. In the Soeharto era, religious conflict was neatly managed to allow the state to control it.
Whether the decree is still needed in this era of democracy is debatable. It seems strange that the government gives itself the power to regulate such things as religious harmony against a backdrop of democracy.
But who dares to guarantee that religious harmony would prevail if Indonesia, which is losing the admiration of the world as a model for peaceful religious coexistence in the face of rising extremism, dropped the decree as many Christian and more liberal-minded intellectuals demand?
Since leaders of each religion have compromised in the name of national interests, it is time to give peace a chance. Why don’t they put aside their suspicions and let the decree take effect and see if it works. Then every, say, two years, they could review it and go back to the drawing board and decide what to do with it.
The key to religious harmony is tolerance, not state intervention as the decree incorrectly assumes. The decree is premised by the notion that religion is a source of conflict and instability and therefore relations between believers of different faiths should be regulated by law.
Indonesia has a great many laws but they are badly enforced. For instance, mobs have forcibly closed at least 23 churches in West Java alone over the past couple of years but we have not heard if the necessary legal action has been taken against the perpetrators.
Ahmadiyah followers have been attacked on Lombok Island by people who condemned them as heretics but instead of hearing of mass arrests, we read in the newspaper that a Cabinet minister advised Ahmadiyah to form a new religion unrelated to Islam. The frightened sect members responded by threatening to seek political asylum abroad.
In predominantly Christian Papua and East Nusa Tenggara, Muslims often find it impossible to build mosques, but have there been any headlines about perpetrators being taken to court?
Apparently, the numerous regimes who have ruled Indonesia have been very soft when dealing with crimes related to religion for unknown reasons.
If a backlash was feared, then perhaps the government should embrace religious leaders and together promote tolerance. Preach love and not hatred.
If the government, religious leaders and lay people all focus on tolerance, the decree would probably be unnecessary.