Indonesia: Religious Minorities Targets of Rising Violence

The Indonesian government is failing to protect the country's religious minorities from growing religious intolerance and violence, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.
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(Jakarta) – The Indonesian government is failing to protect the country’s religious minorities from growing religious intolerance and violence, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono should respond much more decisively and adopt a “zero tolerance” policy for attacks on religious minority communities.

The 107-page report, “In Religion’s Name: Abuses against Religious Minorities in Indonesia,” documents the government’s failure to confront militant groups whose thuggish harassment and assaults on houses of worship and members of religious minorities has become increasingly aggressive. Those targeted include Ahmadiyahs, Christians, and Shia Muslims. Indonesian monitoring groups have noted a steady increase in such attacks, one group finding 264 violent incidents over the past year.

“The Indonesian government’s failure to take decisive action to protect religious minorities from threats and violence is undermining its claims to being a rights-respecting democracy,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “National leadership is essential. Yudhoyono needs to insist that national laws be enforced, announce that every violent attack will be prosecuted, and map out a comprehensive strategy to combat rising religious intolerance.”

Human Rights Watch conducted research in 10 provinces on the Indonesian islands of Java, Madura, Sumatra, and Timor, and interviewed more than 115 people of various religious beliefs. These included 71 victims of violence and abuses, as well as religious leaders, police officers, militant group leaders, lawyers, and civil society activists.

Local officials too often have responded to acts of arson and other violence by blaming the victims, Human Rights Watch said. Most perpetrators have received little or no punishment. In two cases, local officials refused to implement Supreme Court decisions granting minority groups the right to build houses of worship. While some national officials have spoken out in defense of religious minorities, others – including the minister of religion, Suryadharma Ali – have themselves made discriminatory statements.

Yudhoyono has failed to use powers at his disposal to defend religious minority communities and has not effectively disciplined cabinet members when they have encouraged abuses, Human Rights Watch said. Ali made discriminatory remarks about the Ahmadiyah and Shia in a March 2011 speech at a political convention, claiming: “We have to ban the Ahmadiyah. It is obvious that Ahmadiyah is against Islam.”In September 2012, he proposed that Shia convert to Sunni Islam. Ali was not sanctioned for either comment.

“The government has shown a deadly indifference to the growing plight of Indonesia’s religious minorities, who reasonably expect their government’s protection,” Adams said.

Islamist militant groups, such as the Islamic People’s Forum (Forum Umat Islam) and the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam), have been implicated in attacks and arson on houses of worship and homes of members of minority religions. Such groups seek to justify violence by espousing an interpretation of Sunni Islam that labels most non-Muslims as “infidels,” and Muslims who do not adhere to Sunni orthodoxy as “blasphemers.”

Indonesian government officials and security forces have often facilitated harassment and intimidation of religious minorities by militant Islamist groups, Human Rights Watch said. That includes making blatantly discriminatory statements, refusing to issue building permits for religious minorities’ houses of worship, and pressuring congregations to relocate.

Such actions are in part made possible by discriminatory laws and regulations, including a blasphemy law that officially recognizes only six religions, and house of worship decrees that give local majority populations significant leverage over religious minority communities. Sunni Muslim communities in areas of eastern Indonesia where Christians are a majority have also been victims of such regulations and in a few instances have had difficulty obtaining permission to build mosques.

Indonesian government institutions have also played a role in the violation of the rights and freedoms of the country’s religious minorities, Human Rights Watch said. Those institutions, which include the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the Coordinating Board for Monitoring Mystical Beliefs in Society (Bakor Pakem) under the Attorney General’s Office, and the semi-official Indonesian Ulema Council, have eroded religious freedom by issuing decrees and fatwas (religious rulings) against members of religious minorities and using their position of authority to press for the prosecution of “blasphemers.”

The increasing violence against religious minorities – and the government’s failure to take decisive steps against it – violates guarantees of religious freedom in the Indonesian constitution and international law. 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 Jakarta-based Setara Institute, which monitors religious freedom in Indonesia, reported a rise in violent attacks on religious minorities, from 244 in 2011, to 264 in 2012. The Wahid Institute, another Jakarta-based rights monitoring group, documented 92 violations of religious freedom and 184 incidents of religious intolerance in 2011, up from 64 violations and 134 incidents of intolerance in 2010.

“Yudhoyono should endorse religious freedom as a fundamental principle of his administration and ensure that government officials are not promoting abuses against religious minorities,” Adams said. “Indonesia’s donors should take up the failure to defend religious freedom as a matter of urgency.”

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