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Restriction on religious freedom still rampant in Indonesia

Ridwan Max Sijabat

The Jakarta Post

Several churches in Jakarta and West Java were closed down by force recently, prompting practitioners to conduct their prayers outside their church. This issue has also gained attention from the United States , which mentioned the restrictions on religious freedom in the State Department’s 2005 International Religious Freedom Report released on Wednesday. Chairman of the Indonesian Communion of Churches (PGI) Rev. Andreas Yewangoe spoke to The Jakarta Post‘s Ridwan Max Sijabat on Thursday.

Question (Q): What is your comment on the U.S. State Department’s report?

Answer (A): With or without the report, restrictions and abuse of religious freedom are still rampant in certain areas in the country.

Several churches of denominations grouped under the PGI were closed by force by a certain extreme group, a series of attacks were launched on Ahmadiyah-owned mosques and properties, and a Catholic education center in Tangerang was closed because it was used as a house of worship. A number of church ministers in the country’s eastern region have been arrested for unspecified reasons.

A stranger thing is that the state fails to enforce the law when facing these restrictions. In certain areas, security personnel just stood by (doing nothing) when churches were closed by force by certain unauthorized groups, and those who perpetrated these wrongdoings have never been brought to justice.

Thus, the core problem is that religious freedom is still restricted, despite the Constitution that guarantees all citizens’ right to worship in accordance with their own faith.

Has the PGI filed a complaint on the closure of churches to the government?

Yes, we have. We brought the issue to our meeting with Vice President Jusuf Kalla at the latter’s Jl. Merdeka Selatan office three weeks ago to be handled properly and immediately, but so far, no measures have been taken.

Will you explain the core problems behind the church closures?

Numerous reasons have been aired by perpetrators to justify their actions. Some said the churches had no official permit from the relevant authorities and had caused disturbances to the surrounding areas, while others said houses and school buildings could not be used as houses of worship. Many have also aired allegations that the establishment of churches in predominantly Muslim districts was aimed at proselytizing non-Christian locals.

Will you comment on the specified reasons?

We have to be extra-alert on this sensitive issue.

First of all, all citizens have the right to adhere to the religion they choose, and to build their houses of worship in places permitted by the relevant authorities.

Second, many churches may have made noise and caused traffic jams, but these problems could be solved amicably and religions should not be seen as the culprits behind them. It is extremely unfair to sow hatred of a certain religion only because church services were noisy or because churchgoers caused a traffic jam.

Regarding the permit issue, if the churches have no official permit as is required by regulations, then they should be closed by the government, and not by militiamen. All sides, including hard-line groups, should respect the rule of law and let law enforcers handle all kinds of legal violations.

Do you think the regulation on the establishment of houses of worship is restrictive?

Very restrictive. Because, despite the new revision, the joint ministerial decree requires irrational administrative requirements to obtain official permits from local administrations for the establishment of a church in a certain district.

The problem is that the government has always claimed to have stayed out of religions’ internal affairs, but, in reality, they have made many rulings dealing with religions. Administratively, the government should regulate the establishment of churches, mosques and temples in accordance with regional spatial zoning and it should not need approval from locals where houses of worship are established.

Many Christian communities have performed their Sunday prayers in houses and other properties because of difficulties in obtaining official permits to establish their churches from authorities. In the meantime, many mosques are built without any official permits.

How do you prevent the government from interfering in the internal affairs of religions?

Despite the Constitution and the Pancasila state ideology that stipulates the belief in Almighty God, the state must be principally separated from religions because both have their own authority. The state (and the government) is tolerated to regulate certain matters on religious affairs in general. In Indonesia , state-religion relations are quite intricate and have been frequently complicated because of the absence of a national commitment to upholding the pluralism-based state pendulum.

What should the government do?

The government should comply with the Constitution that guarantees religious freedom and stay out of the internal affairs of religions. And it should give equal treatment to all citizens to practice their beliefs.

All discriminative and restrictive regulations, rulings, decrees and bylaws that go against the Constitution should be annulled. These restrictive rulings or edicts have encouraged certain sides to use violence on other religions’ adherents and certain sects deemed deviant.

Authorities must stand neutral and take action against those abusing religious freedom in order to uphold the government’s sovereignty.