‘Religious Harmony’ Principle Backfires in Indonesia

25-Apr-2018 Intellasia | HRW | 6:00 AM Print This Post

It began when the Jayapura Churches Association wrote a letter on February 16, protesting the renovation of Al-Aqsa mosque in Jayapura, the provincial capital of Papua. They demanded the local government to dismantle its minaret as it was higher than the churches in the Sentani neighbourhood.

The Christian group also asked the government to lower “noisy loudspeakers” during the daily Islamic call to prayer, to restrict Islamic missionaries throughout Papua, to ban mandatory hijab in public schools, to restrict the construction of mosques inside government facilities, to ensure that the Christians’ having a say when Muslims constructing new mosques, and to ask the government to write a regulation on “religious harmony.” The group gave a 14-day deadline, or else they would “take their own action.”

It became national news when Kumparan, a Jakarta-based news website, broke the story on March 16, two weeks after the deadline, creating quite a stir in Indonesia, a predominantly Muslim country, where most sectarian stories were about Muslim groups closing down churches or using the blasphemy law for political leverage.

Robbi Depondoye, the group chair, stressed, “Construction of Al-Aqsha mosque’s minaret must be halted and demolished while the mosque itself must be lowered to the same height as church buildings in the area.”

Although Papua and West Papua are predominantly Christian provinces, the percentage of ethnic Papuan residents has been declining since the 1980s when the Indonesian government began relocating residents from Java island to sparsely populated areas like Papua. Most of these transmigrants are Javanese Muslims the largest ethnic group in Indonesia with around 42 percent of the national population. According to the 2010 census, ethnic Javanese is the third largest ethnic group in Papua province (8 percent) after the native Dani (23 percent) and Mee (11 percent).

Papua is also the site of one of the world’s largest gold and copper mine, Mt. Grasberg, operated by Phoenix-based Freeport McMoran. Papua also has a stubborn political movement to secede from Indonesia since the 1960s. Indonesia often organised military and police operations, unfortunately, also creating decades of widespread human rights abuses. Papua and West Papua are also restricted to have visiting foreigners, including international journalists and human rights monitors. It’s Indonesia’s “forbidden island.”

Jayapura Regent Mathius Awoitauw responded to the petition, “The minaret’s construction is not an extraordinary feature. It becomes extraordinary because it’s becoming viral in social media and everyone responds to each other. If we all sit together and then talk from heart to heart, including the mosque’s board, the Religious Harmony Forum, the Jayapura Churches Association all parties we will find the best solution for all of us.”

Awoitauw set up a six-member team to find the compromise. They include representatives from the official Religious Harmony Forum, the Jayapura Churches Association, the Indonesian Ulama Council as well as Albert Yoku, the chair of Papua’s largest church, the Evangelical Christian Church in Papua, and Toni Wanggai of the Papuan People’s Assembly, himself a Muslim.

The optic is clear: three Christians and three Muslims.

Interestingly, Jakarta Archbishop Ignatius Suharyo, who controls the richest Catholic diocese in Indonesia, stated that the demand to demolish that minaret in Sentani is “not justified and a criminal act,” asking the Jayapura government to ignore such a protest. Suharyo’s diocese experienced a similar problem. They spent more than 15 years to secure the building permit of their St. Clara church in Bekasi, facing regular protests from the Muslims.

But the Jayapura group is not a Catholic one. They’re a mix of Protestant Calvinist, Evangelical, Lutheran, and Presbyterian churches. Indonesia considers Protestantism and Catholicism as two different “religions” –a legacy of the Dutch colonial rule. They respectively have their own government-recognised associations.

Monsignor Suharyo’s Protestant colleague, Rev. Henriette Lebang of the Communion of Churches in Indonesia visited Ma’ruf Amin, the chair of the Indonesian Ulama Council, the most powerful religious association in Indonesia, on March 20. They discussed the polemic over Al-Aqsha mosque.

Lebang, a soft-spoken woman, stressed the needs to solve the dispute with a dialogue, to take and to give, “We should work together to maintain our diversity.”

Ma’ruf Amin is arguably the most powerful Muslim cleric in Indonesia.

He’s not only the chair of the ulama council but also the chair of the consultative board of the Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Muslim group. He’s also a presidential advisor, serving both President Joko Widodo and his predecessor President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

In 2005, Amin drafted a government regulation on “the construction of houses of worship” and “religious harmony,” basically shifting the principle of religious freedom like what the Indonesian constitution guarantees all citizens have equal rights to practice their religions to religious harmony all citizens are categorised into majority and minorities.

In April 2006, his draft was made into a government regulation under President Yudhoyono, entitled “Guidelines for Regional Heads and Deputies in Maintaining Religious Harmony, Empowering the Religious Harmony Forum, and Constructing Houses of Worship.” The decree provides that the construction of houses of worship should be based on “real needs” and “composition of the population” in the area. A permit for constructing a house of worship requires:

List of names and ID cards of at least 90 people who will use the house of worship. This list should be endorsed by the village head;

Support letter from at least 60 people living in the area. This support letter should be endorsed by the village head;

Written recommendation from the local Ministry of Religious Affairs;

Written recommendation from the local Religious Harmony Forum.

Religious minorities’ associations, including the Christians but also Muslim minorities such as the Ahmadiyah, charged the regulation to be discriminatory against them. Muslim vigilantes often used the regulation to attack Christians and other minorities, accusing hundreds of churches not having proper permits and pressuring local governments to close them down. The most well know case is probably the Taman Yasmin Indonesia Christian Church in Bogor, outside Jakarta, which had acquired its building license in 2003 but forced to close due to the pressures from the Muslims in the area. It went to court and won their case up to the Supreme Court in 2010. It’s still closed now.

According to a Ma’ruf Amin spokesman, Amin and Lebang had agreed that the Muslim minorities in Papua should respect what the Christian majority had demanded if the requests were “appropriate.”

The spokesman said, “They have reasonable requests. The mosque should not sound their loudspeakers out but aim their loudspeakers into the building. The minaret, we will just follow that request, to be lowered.” The unreasonable requests include the restriction of Muslim preachers and the ban on Muslim attires in public schools. “But the demands from the majority must be determined with a local regulation, not set up by the PGI (Communion of Churches in Indonesia) or similar groups.”

Human Rights Watch considers the 2006 regulation plus the 1965 blasphemy law to be the main discriminations against religious minorities in Indonesia. It’s going to be very difficult for the Jayapura government to use that regulation to protect the mosque. It’s arguably designed to accommodate the Muslim majority in Indonesia but now it’s being used by intolerant Christians in Jayapura.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Indonesia ratified in 2005, provides that “persons belonging to…minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion.” The Jayapura case should be an opportunity to educate the Indonesian public that this majority-minorities approach is not going to solve the rise of sectarianism in pluralistic Indonesia. The national government should take the initiative in reviewing that regulation and solving hundreds of closed houses of worships throughout Indonesia, including Java and Sumatra.



Category: Indonesia

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