[Updated: May 18, 2013 at 12:35 p.m.]
Criticism against recognizing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono as a champion of religious freedom was part of democracy, a presidential spokesman said on Friday.
Responding to claims that the president was not a worthy winner of a religious freedom prize bestowed on him recently by the US-based Appeal of Conscience Foundation, foreign affairs advisor Teuku Faizasyah said that the criticism was part of an open democracy, and that the foundation likely had valid reasons to award the president.
“[The criticism is] just part of the dynamics in our democracy,” Faizasyah said in Jakarta on Friday, adding that the president takes every criticism and aspiration offered by the public into consideration.
He said the public should ask the institution, and not the State Palace, about the award. “Go ahead and ask the institution [about the award] because we’re not the ones that initiated the process to get the acknowledgement,” he said.
Philosopher and Jesuit priest Franz Magnis Suseno previously sent the ACF a letter questioning their decision to honor the president.
“This is very embarrassing, it’s embarrassing for you. It discredits every claim you made as an institution with moralistic intentions,” he wrote.
“How could you make this decision without asking the Indonesian people? Hopefully you didn’t make the decision based on the encouragement of certain government officials or the presidential circle.”
Imam Shofwan, the son of a Nahdlatul Ulema cleric, launched an online petition on Friday calling on the ACF to postpone its granting of the award. Imam asked people to endorse Magnis’s letter and sign and circulate the petition.
“I was raised in a Nahdlatul Ulama family. As a Muslim, I agree with Magnis. I believe that a crime committed in the name of religion is the greatest crime against religion,” Imam said, quoting ACF’s motto.
Imam said that protection of minority groups is the president’s constitutional obligation rather than being the role of regional governments.
In his letter, Magnis said it was increasingly difficult for Christians in the country to obtain a permit to build a place of worship and that there were a growing number of churches being forced to close and more regulations that made it difficult for minorities to perform their religious activities.
Rights activists said last week that the president must show that he deserves the award by doing more for victims of persecution.
Reverend Palti Panjaitan, whose congregation in Bekasi has for years been fighting for the right to worship at its own church, said he wanted to remind the president that he has failed to protect the rights of minority groups to worship peacefully.
“We’re here as victims and there are bound to be more victims. We came to say that he has never resolved the religious conflicts in the country and has focused more on foreign issues,” Palti said on May 10.
In their open letter to the president, representatives from the Solidarity for Victims of Religious Freedom Violations (Sobat KBB) called for the president to “immediately afford [them] protection and end all forms of discrimination that [they] continue to face to this day.”
Previous winners of the ACF World Statesman Award include Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
[WebEd: A previous version of this story misrepresented Teuku Faizasyah's quotes. He said that criticism, not religious intolerance, was part of democracy. The Jakarta Globe regrets this error.]