Minister for Religion Says No to Calls to Revise Decree
Camelia Pasandaran & Eras Poke | September 20, 2010
Ahmadiyah members leaving their mosque after Friday prayers in Manis Lor village in Kuningan, West Java. The mosque has been at the center of protests by hard-line Muslims groups from the area. (AFP Photo/Yonda)*/ ?>
Jakarta. The minister of religious affairs on Monday said there were no plans to revise the joint Ministerial Decree on Houses of Worship despite a chorus of criticism from rights activists and lawmakers against the regulation.
Suryadharma Ali dismissed calls to amend the decree, which have been mounting since an attack on two leaders of a congregation from the Batak Christian Protestant Church (HKBP) Pondok Timur Indah in Bekasi on Sept. 12, in which one church elder was stabbed.
Tensions have been raised in Bekasi for the past few months with some hard-line Muslim groups opposing the building of a church in the Pondok Timur Indah area because it lacks the proper permits.
“This regulation is needed to maintain harmony,” Suryadharma said. “If this regulation didn’t exist, people would be free to do whatever they wanted.”
The decree, issued by both the ministries of religious affairs and home affairs, requires the approval of at least 60 households in the immediate vicinity of new houses of worship before they are granted permits to build or conduct services.
Suryadharma said securing the approval of 60 households was not too much to ask for.
“In the past, the requirement included securing approvals from up to 300 to 400 households. So if every household in that lot included at least three people, that would mean 1,200 approvals. This is just 60 households,” he said.
The decree, however, has been slammed by rights groups for making it nearly impossible for minority faiths to build houses of worship in Muslim-majority areas.
In recent months, the regulation has been cited to justify a spate of attacks against Christians in the Greater Jakarta area by hard-line Muslim groups who say the congregations have no permits to hold religious services.
Some state officials, however, have expressed support for revising the decree.
Constitutional Court Chief Mahfud MD has said he backs revising — but not abolishing — the regulation, arguing it should adapt to changing social conditions.
“A law should be attuned to the times and consider the changes and developments that take place in the society,” he said.
Several lawmakers have also said the decree should be revised, and have even supported calls to draft a new law to support religious harmony.
In addition to securing the approval of 60 households, the decree also states that new houses of worship need recommendations from the local offices of the Religious Affairs Ministry and Interreligious Communication Forum (FKUB).
But Hendardi, who chairs the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, has accused the FKUB of regularly “filtering out” permit applications instead of protecting the rights of religious groups.
Meanwhile, hundreds of people from the East Nusa Tenggara People’s Solidarity and Transparency Forum (Somasi) rallied outside the provincial council building in Kupang to protest against the attacks on the HKBP in Bekasi and the ban on its members from worshiping in a vacant lot.
The demonstrators, who included officials from the provincial branch of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (Kontras), also protested against recent attacks on members of Ahmadiyah, a minority Islamic sect, which Suryadharma has repeatedly called for a ban on, claiming that its followers had “violated regulations” and were “not Muslims.”
Speaking with the East Nusa Tenggara Council speaker, Agustinus Medah, Somasi said the attacks against the HKBP and Ahmadiyah were evidence the state was failing to protect the constitutional right to worship.
“The president should have acted firmly,” said Winston Rondo, a representative of Somasi. “He should do so now and protect his people from violence. He is instead more interested in raising his public image.”