The head of the Ministry of Religion's Interfaith Harmony Forum said on Monday (31/07) that the government is currently drafting a law that will guarantee the rights of religious minorities across the country.(Reuters Photo/David Mdzinarishvili)

Draft Law to Ensure Rights for Religious Minorities Met With Skepticism


AUGUST 01, 2017

Jakarta. The head of the Ministry of Religion's Interfaith Harmony Forum said on Monday (31/07) that the government is currently drafting a law that will guarantee the rights of religious minorities across the country.

"The government [currently] only recognizes six religions, while more than four million people who follow religions outside of those six are not served by the government [...] We want to solve this problem," Ferimeldi said during an open forum on interfaith relations in Jakarta.

The government will seek to change the status quo through the new Religious Rights Protection Bill, which is expected to be presented to the House of Representatives before the end of the year, largely because existing regulations are insufficient to allow the government to assist religious minorities.

Muslims make up 87 percent of Indonesia's population of roughly 250 million people, whereas Christians and Catholics – the government classifies both separately – make up 7 and 3 percent of the population, respectively. Other prominent religions found across the archipelago include Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. 

Indeed, Confucianism, practiced by many of the country's ethnic Chinese, was originally identified as an official state religion under Indonesia's first president, Soekarno, but was later removed from the Constitution under Soeharto's New Order Regime, which recognized only five religions.

After Soeharto's downfall in 1998, however, President Abdurahman Wahid, known commonly as Gus Dur, threw out a 1978 Home Affairs Ministry decision that previously wiped Confucianism off the list of official state religions.

While Java and Sumatra, two of Indonesia's most populated islands, are largely Muslim, some smaller islands are comprised mostly of religious minorities. Bali, for instance, is over 80 percent Hindu, while North Sulawesi comprises a population that is more than 60 percent Christian.

Dark Side of Democracy

Throughout Indonesia's relatively short history, religious minorities have faced an array of discrimination and prejudice, including being the victims of pogroms and unwarranted imprisonment, most notably during the 1965 anti-Communist killings and the 1998 riots.

Febi Yonesta, chairman of refugee rights advocacy group Suaka, said discrimination against religious minorities contradicts the country's 1945 Constitution, which on paper suggests equality for all citizens regardless of religious background.

"I have observed that such continuous violations [have been] caused by a lack of political will of the government [...] to find durable solutions in upholding the rights of religious minorities," Febi said, labeling this dilemma the "dark side" of Indonesian democracy.

The Suaka chairman noted that religious minorities face difficulties in everyday life, even in basic things such as obtaining government-issued identity cards or birth and death certificates.

For instance, the Ahmadiyya sect, or a branch of Islam found in West Nusa Tenggara, were forced from their ancestral land in Ketapang village, West Lombok regent, in February 2006 due to their unpopular teachings, which many Sunni Muslims view as blasphemous. Many Ahmadiyya followers still do not have access to ID cards or birth certificates.

'Highly Toxic Regulation' Repackaged

Yenny Wahid, executive director of the Jakarta-based Wahid Foundation, said present and future administrations are unlikely to rise up to the challenge of officially recognizing a religion due to "political costs."

She cited the backlash that her father Gus Dur faced after re-declaring Confucianism as the sixth officially recognized religion in Indonesia.

New York-based Human Rights Watch’s (HRW) senior Indonesia researcher, Andreas Harsono, referred to the bill as "nothing less than a repackaging of highly toxic regulations against religious minorities in Indonesia."

Furthermore, HRW also highlighted that the draft law expands the scope of Indonesia's 1965 blasphemy law and reinforces discriminatory administrative requirements, the latter unfairly restricting construction of places of worship by religious minorities.

"The government should toss out this draft law and the discriminatory regulations that it seeks to enshrine," Andreas said.