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The inconsistency between what the government says and what it does (or does not do) about freedom of religion could not have been more starkly illustrated than it was by two incidents that took place just hours, and a few hundred kilometers, apart Saturday.
In Jakarta, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, in a speech celebrating Chinese New Year, said the government was constitutionally bound to protect freedom of religion and the right of all people to practice their faith.
Using the occasion to address followers of Confucianism, here is what the President said, in part, as quoted by Kompas: “In this country, there is no such thing as religions that are recognized or not recognized by the state. The Constitution guarantees the freedom of every citizen to have a religion and to practice their faith. The state shall never interfere in any religious teachings. The duty of the state is to protect, serve and facilitate the building and maintenance of places of worship and to encourage citizens to become good followers of their religions.”
To the east, in a village on Lombok, about 2,000 people attacked a compound housing 31 families of followers of Ahmadiyah, an Islamic sect with origins in India. Police sent to protect the families were far outnumbered and helpless to stop the attackers from burning the houses.
Fortunately, there were no deaths and all of the families were safely evacuated. Still, the ugly attack had the tacit approval of the local administration and Muslim ulema. Nationally, Ahmadiyah has been declared a heretical sect by the Indonesian Ulema Council, which is one reason the authorities have been halfhearted in coming to the aid of its followers when they find themselves under attack, including this latest incident.
The President’s speech was comforting, particularly for religious minorities in the country. To them, these were words to live by in a country that has, since its inception, strived to adhere to the principles of pluralism where the rights of minorities are respected and protected.
Yudhoyono was simply invoking the Constitution in his speech. He was reiterating the duties and obligations of the government in guaranteeing and protecting religious freedom. Although the context of his speech was the discrimination followers of Confucianism, mostly ethnic Chinese, continue to encounter, there was no doubt the promises and guarantees were universal and applicable to followers of all religions and beliefs that exist in the country.
Sadly, the reality is far from the rosy picture painted by the Constitution and the President. If anything, the situation seems to be deteriorating of late. Minority Christians are finding it harder to build new churches and established Christian places of worship have been forced to close down by their Muslim neighbors and radical groups. And the followers of Ahmadiyah face nothing less than persecution, with very little state protection being offered.
The President himself appeared ambiguous, if not inconsistent, in his speech, invoking a 1965 presidential ruling that identifies six religions — Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism — that are followed by citizens of the country. This ruling amounts to a state recognition of these religions, and by way of implication, the nonrecognition of any other religions and beliefs.
The bureaucracy has religiously applied this policy of recognition and nonrecognition when dealing with such issues as the religion of a person on his/her identification card. The civil registry will not accept marriages that are not performed in accordance with the rituals of one of these “state-recognized” religions, much less marriages between people of different faiths.
This practice of “selective pluralism” in dealing with religion contravenes the very nature of the freedom of religion guaranteed in the Constitution and invoked by the President in his speech. This policy has many unintended consequences.
Under current practices, for example, Ahmadiyah has to be considered an Islamic sect. But the denunciation by the Indonesian Ulema Council has left Ahmadiyah in a quandary, while its followers continue to be subject to violent attacks.
If the President were to wipe the 1965 ruling off the books, then Ahmadiyah followers could safely put “Ahmadiyah” as their religion on their ID cards. This would help end the heated debate over whether the sect is Islamic, and the persecution of Ahmadiyah would, hopefully, cease once and for all.
Why is there still such a huge divide between what the Constitution says on the question of religious freedom, as eloquently evoked by the President on Saturday, and the reality on the ground? Perhaps the President, or someone in the government, would care to explain?