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Home Worldwide Indonesia March, 2006 Joint decree …
Joint decree a clear danger to religious freedom

Opinion March 31, 2006 

Joint decree a clear danger to religious freedom

Charles Honoris, Tokyo

The government recently issued a revised version of the controversial joint ministerial decree on establishment of places of worship.

The regulation places numerous restrictions on religious groups, which may prevent the establishment of houses of worship in areas where a different religion is the majority. To build a church, a temple or a mosque, for example, there has to be at least 90 adherents of the religion who will use the location as a place of worship. In addition, the establishment of a house of worship must obtain permission and consent from 60 local inhabitants from a different religion and must be approved by the local authorities.

Proponents of the decree, such as Muhammadiyah chairman Din Syamsuddin, believes that the decree is needed to prevent conflict and to preserve religious harmony. This is in connection with the recent increase in sectarian tensions illustrated by the forcible closure of numerous churches in West Java and violence against alleged “defiant sects”, such as the Ahmadiyah congregation.

Opponents, however, believe that the decree is a form of discrimination against minority religions. More importantly, the decree runs counter to the 1945 Constitution and international human rights conventions Indonesia has ratified.

Article 28 of the Constitution guarantees every individual the right to religious freedom and to worship according to his or her beliefs. Article 18 of the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by the House of Representatives, guarantees the right of every individual: “Freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching”.

The joint ministerial decree is in clear violation of the two legal instruments. As the decree curtails the establishment of houses of worship, it may prevent people from worshiping according to their beliefs. The decree could also kill religious groups deemed as heretical by acknowledged religious authorities, which would deprive the so-called “heretical” groups of their right to practice their beliefs.

The U.S. also enforces regulations governing the establishment of places of worship, but they mainly concentrate on technicalities, such as building requirements. The government may not, however, prevent a religious group from building a house of worship because of dislike of the majority religion residing in the area, as it would be a violation of the U.S. Constitution, which protects freedom of religion, abhors discrimination, and separates the church from the state. That is why, in the past two decades, more than 1,000 mosques have been built in the U.S., making Islam the fastest growing religion in America.

As mentioned by Daniel Bintoro of the Orthodox Church, the decree may also intensify “mistrust among people of different religious faiths”. The decree could segregate neighborhoods and divide them based on religious affiliations. When conflicts between neighborhoods occur, it may lead to sectarian conflicts, as happened in Ambon and Poso, where protracted violence has claimed thousands of lives.

The decree is a clear form of intervention by the state into the people’s religious affairs. To expect that the decree will prevent conflicts and create religious harmony is absurd. What Indonesia needs is something that is beyond edicts and decrees, or even tolerance.

A well-respected Indian scholar who is an expert on Indonesian politics, Dr. Ghoshal Baladas, once told me that: “What Indonesia needs is not tolerance, but mutual respect between religious groups and individuals”. Legal instruments that are forced upon the public by the government will not do the trick, instead it will jeopardize our religious freedom. Can the decree generate mutual respect between religions in Indonesia? I doubt it.

The writer is a student of political science and law at the International Christian University, Tokyo.

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