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New decree on houses of worship
Religious harmony in Indonesia is guaranteed under its Pancasila state ideology. But a new, controversial decree governing the building of houses of worship could threaten this harmony
By NAZRI BAHRAWI
During her diplomatic stopover in Jakarta last month, US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice envisioned a heartening future which saw Indonesia assuming a leadership position among member nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). Her speech to the Indonesian Council on World Affairs lay claim to this benign prophecy when she eloquently proclaimed: ‘’Freedom and democracy. Justice and tolerance. These principles are the source of success past, present and future for large, multi-ethnic nations like Indonesia and the United States.’‘
Yet some would argue that these very qualities are now found wanting, in the wake of last month’s touchy new decree which would regulate the establishment of houses of worship in Indonesia.
Jointly issued by Religious Affairs Minister Maftuh Basyuni and Home Affairs Minister Muhammad Maruf, the decree, officially known as Ministerial Decree No.1/2006, declares that a permit which legitimises a house of worship can only be issued if it is sanctioned by at least 90 worshippers and 60 people from other faiths residing near its vicinity, in a signed statement.
Backed by the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), it is little wonder that the decree has been hailed by officials as an improvement to a previous vague ruling, the Joint Ministerial Decree (SKB) No.1, 1969, in terms of defining specific prerequisites, after Christians complained that they could not get permits to build churches under the latter ruling.
Justifying his support for the revised decree, MUI spokesperson Amidhan believes that the ruling facilitates the management of social interaction. When interviewed by The Jakarta Post, he argued: ‘’If we don’t limit the places of worship, they will be abundant. There would be competition from different religions or sects, and it would create public disorder.’‘
But the ideological underpinning that fuels Mr Amidhan’s reasoning _ as public reaction suggests _ is one that undermines the Pancasila state ideology to uphold religious freedom as concretised under the Republic’s amended 1945 Constitution.
As it is, the decree has drawn flak from Christians and the Ahmadiyah group. Taking it a step further, one group of protesters comprising lawyers from different faiths filed an official appeal with the Supreme Court, calling for its annulment. This legal outfit, known as the Defence Team for Religious and Faith Freedom (TPKB), was in fact set up last year to counter instances of forced church closures and attacks on the Ahmadiyah group, given that the latter has been branded as a heretical Islamic sect by mainstream Muslims.
Saor Siagian, leader of TPKB, decries the decree on grounds that it goes against the constitution, the human rights law and the principle of freedom to exercise one’s religion and faith.
Judging from the potentially detrimental consequences of the decree, his protest is supported by credible reasons. Mr Saor argues that the decree will mean that rural sites like remote villages in Papua province, whose community is made up of less than 50 residents, will be denied a place of worship.
From a political standpoint, this can only spell bad news for President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who is desperately trying to appease rising grievances that the Papuans harbour towards the central government, to avoid a fully-fledged rebellion similar to that in recently independent East Timor.
More possible troubles abound. It can be further argued that the decree will adversely affect the way religions are practised by citizens in conflict-torn areas like Maluku, Ambon and Poso, where relations between Christians and Muslims have been tense as a result of countless bloody clashes between these two groups in the past.
Under such edgy conditions, it is unlikely that either group can garner 60 signatures from the other to establish their respective houses of worship.
This could heighten bad blood between the two faith groups that could climax in further violent collisions.
Others, like Priest Weinata Sairin of the Indonesian Communion of Churches (PGI), question the need for existing places of worship which currently do not possess permits.
These include those found in shopping malls, hotels, shophouses and other public places. Given that most of these places are surau’s or small praying areas for Muslims, which probably cater to less than 90 congregation members, this means that Muslims themselves might find difficulties getting permits.
Thus, the contentious decree will irk Muslims as much as non-Muslims in the world’s most populous Muslim country.
Already, the decree has been criticised by Hasyim Muzadi, chairman of Nadhhatul Ulama (NU), Indonesia’s largest Muslim organisation, who believes it to be more restrictive that the former 1969 rule.
Mr Hasyim disagreed, though, that it restricted religious freedom. Whether he will change his mind on this stand remains to be seen.
But not all is lost. Those rooting for the eradication of this decree can at least take some comfort in that the new ruling also mandates that the Joint Forum for Religious Tolerance (FKUB) _ a body comprising representatives from various faiths _ approve applications for permits.
It was also fronted that if locals reject the building of a place of worship but approval is granted by the FKUB, then alternative locations will be sought.
At least for now, strong protests have led to provinces like Riau exercising prudence in implementing the decree where local authorities require a congregation of only 80 people instead of 90 to grant a faith community a construction permit.
Minister Maftuh has also clarified that the required approval of 60 people of other faiths is not an absolute, with local authorities required to grant permits as long as worshippers meet the required minimum of 90 members.
In good faith, Indonesia must overcome the threat of parochialism that the decree seems to promote, lest its multicultural society is torn asunder. Only then can Ms Rice be possibly hailed as a believable prophet of sorts.
Nazry Bahrawi is Managing Editor of “The Muslim Reader” magazine and a free-lance writer on social issues.