A leap for faith in Indonesia
A high court decision gives state recognition to some 245 traditional faiths, a small but overdue victory for religious freedom
In a few heart-felt moments during a hushed Catholic funeral service, Indonesian soprano Rami Kirana did more for interfaith relations in her Muslim majority country than any well-meaning government or religious figure could have done in a year of talking.
Standing in a grey hijab in the Catholic cathedral in Bogor, south of Jakarta, the young Muslim artist sang a stunning rendition of Ave Maria in a final farewell to her best friend, a Catholic woman, that took Indonesia’s social media by storm.
Typically, in today’s increasingly intolerant Indonesia, she later received threats from hard-line Islamists, forcing those responsible for posting the moving video on Facebook to try and tone down the reaction in the interests of her safety.
Kirana, whose mother and grandmother were both noted sopranos, received permission from the church to sing the traditional Angelic Salutation prayer as the casket bearing her friend’s body was closed in the final stages of the requiem mass.
Fittingly, the November 6 funeral came a day before Indonesia’s Constitutional Court issued a landmark ruling in which the government was instructed to officially recognize traditional faiths, seen as a small but overdue victory for religious freedom.
Until now, in what has long been regarded as an infringement of individual rights, the state has only recognized Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism, leaving about 245 traditional faiths in limbo. The court’s ruling creates a seventh encompassing category.
The government does not recognize agnosticism or atheism and blasphemy prosecutions have multiplied from only a handful during former President Suharto’s heavy-handed New Order regime to more than 130 under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s decade-long rule.
The court decided that provisions in the 2013 Civil Administration Law requiring followers of indigenous tribal and other unrecognized faiths to leave the religion field in their identity cards blank was discriminatory under the 1945 Constitution.
The panel of nine judges agreed with lawyers representing four traditional faiths, who last year filed a request for a judicial review, that the two articles in question provided no legal certainty and violated the principle of equal justice for all.
Moving faster than normal, the House of Representatives quickly initiated a review of its own, which will likely lead to a revision of the legislation to bring it into line with the ruling.
There are believed to be up to 15 million native faith adherents in Indonesia who, because they aren’t permitted to record their religion, have difficulty obtaining birth certificates, registering their marriage or otherwise qualifying for government services.
They are not the only Indonesians who have been discriminated against over the years. It was only in 2000 that ex-tapol (ET), or political prisoner, was removed from the ID cards of thousands of people mostly imprisoned without trial in the bloody aftermath of the fall of president Sukarno in the mid-1960s.
Those two letters condemned them and their families to a life of misery and unemployment. Even as late as 1995, a doctor was fired from the hospital she had worked at for 25 years after it was belatedly discovered her journalist husband was branded as ex-tapol.
Despite the Constitutional Court ruling and a charter that specifically guarantees freedom of religion, minorities still face an uphill battle to preserve their rights in the face of the growing influence of conservative Islam.
Human Rights Watch (HRW), a lobby group, recently called on the government to scrap a Religious Affairs Ministry draft law on the “protection” of religious rights, which it says only reinforces existing regulations that discriminate against minorities.
The so-called Religious Rights Protection Bill enshrines both Indonesia’s blasphemy law, as well as existing decrees that impose restrictions on minorities seeking permits to build houses of worship.
It also lays down an excessively narrow criterion for a religion to receive state recognition and increases the powers of the misleadingly named Religious Harmony Forums (FKUB), formed under the Yudhoyono government when religious tolerance took a big backward step.
“The misnamed religious rights bill is nothing less than a repackaging of highly toxic regulations against religious minorities,” said senior HRW researcher Andreas Harsono. “The government should abolish discriminatory regulations, not collect them under a cynical veneer of ‘religious protections.’”
The government has sought to justify the law on the basis that existing regulations guaranteeing the protection of religious rights are neither sufficient nor applicable enough to the “changing landscape of society’s legal needs.”
But while religious minorities are already vulnerable to discrimination and what has become widespread official indifference to worsening intolerance by militant Islamists, the draft law is seen to compound rather than reduce those threats.
In particular it reinforces and expands the scope of Article 156a of the Indonesian criminal code, known as the blasphemy law, which punishes deviations from the central tenets of the six officially recognized religions with up to five years in prison.
The article was used earlier this year to prosecute and imprison ethnic Chinese Jakarta governor Basuki Purnama and a growing number of religious minorities and traditional religions, including three leaders of East Kalimantan’s beleaguered Gafatar community.
It also formed the legal basis for a June 2008 government decree that ordered adherents of the already bloodied Ahmadiyah Islamic sect to cease all religious activities on the grounds that they deviated from the principal teachings of Islam.
In fact, the new bill expands the current criteria for a blasphemy offense from “showing hostility, abuse, or desecration” toward a religion to anyone who persuades others to convert from their original faith, who purposefully creates noise near a house of worship, or who destroys or defaces a holy book.
Moreover, Christians will find it more difficult to build churches in Muslim majority communities, with the law stipulating that official approval will be dependent on the “proportion in which adherents of a particular religion, which wants to set up the house of worship, is relative to their village’s total population.”
With the legislation still on Parliament’s schedule, and President Joko Widodo apparently unwilling to intercede with the 2019 presidential elections around the corner, it now remains to be seen whether Rami Kirani’s soaring tribute to her friend was merely a voice in the wilderness.