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5/13/2011 Indonesia (CDN) — On Feb. 6 in Indonesia, Muslim hardliners armed with machetes brutally murdered three members of a “blasphemous” Muslim sect in the village of Cikeusik, West Java. Five other members escaped with severe injuries; police were present but did not intervene.

The attack followed two years of violence sparked by a June 2008 Joint Ministerial Decree banning public worship for the Ahmadiyah, whose members believe that their founder, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, was the last prophet of Islam, rather than Muhammad.

On Feb. 8, a large mob gathered outside a courthouse in Temanggung, Central Java, chanting “Kill, kill!” after judges awarded Antonius Richmond Bawengan, a Roman Catholic, the maximum five-year sentence for blasphemy. By nightfall some 1,000 people had rampaged through the town burning vehicles, two churches and a church-run school, injuring nine people in the process. (See, “After Attacks, Christian Leaders in Indonesia Decry Lax Security,” Feb. 11.)

Three days later, prosecutors in Jakarta sentenced Murhali Barda, a regional leader of the hardline Front Pembela Islam (FPI or Islamic Defenders Front) to only five-and-a-half months in prison and fined him the equivalent of 10 US cents for orchestrating an attack on a Protestant church in which two Christians were seriously injured. (See, “Light Sentences for Attack on Christians in Indonesia Condemned,” March 10.)

These events, occurring in a single week, provide a snapshot of the rising fanaticism that has seriously damaged Indonesia’s reputation as a moderate Islamic nation.

“The real root of the country’s religious intolerance is the 1965 Blasphemy Law,” wrote Armando Siahaan in a recent Jakarta Globe report. Many observers agree that the 1965 law and associated legislation, coupled with a lack of political will to curb hard-line groups, are to blame for the steep climb in religious violence.

‘Enmity’ Towards Religion

Last October, Bawengan distributed a book he’d written that criticized the Catholic faith and allegedly handed out pamphlets that described sacred Islamic symbols as phallic images, according to local news reports.

Catholics, while offended – and falsely blamed for Bawengan’s remarks about Islam – did not accuse him of blasphemy against the Catholic Church. The state, however, found him guilty of blasphemy against Islam under Article 156(A) of the penal code, which stipulates up to five years in prison for anyone who publicly shows “enmity” or “abuses or stains” a religion adhered to in Indonesia, or prevents other people from adhering to such a religion.

The maximum sentence under Article 156(A) is surprisingly lenient compared with blasphemy punishments in other countries, but this is likely due to Indonesia’s founding principle of Pancasila, which strives for “unity in diversity.”

Protestants are rarely prosecuted under this law, although police in April 2007 arrested 41 members of the Indonesian Students Service Agency and charged them with blasphemy under Article 156(A) for allegedly depicting the Quran as the “source of all evil” in Indonesia. A court in East Java sentenced all 41 defendants to the maximum five years in prison in September 2007, although they were granted a reprieve in August 2008, according to The Jakarta Post.

In December 2008, a student in Masohi, Maluku, claimed that his Christian teacher, Welhelmina Holle, had insulted Islam. When the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI or Indonesian Clerics Council) filed a complaint with police, a mob of at least 300 protestors gathered outside the local regent’s office; a riot broke out, with the mob burning dozens of homes, a church and a village hall.

According to local media reports, one of the protestors carried a banner that stated with inadvertent irony, “Don’t destroy the peace with blind fanaticism!”

Military and riot police eventually stopped the violence, but Holle was detained, found guilty of blasphemy and sentenced to a year in prison, along with former parliamentary candidate Asmara Wasahua, who was charged only with inciting the riot.

Insult v. Incitement to Hatred

Article 156(A) is based on Law No. 1/1965, introduced by President Sukarno in 1964 and more commonly known as Indonesia’s 1965 Blasphemy Law. Article 1 of Sukarno’s law prohibits anyone from intentionally trying to gain public support for a religion or participating in religious activities that might be considered a deviation of a recognized religion.

Sukarno enacted the law after critics said that Pancasila offered little protection for the Muslim majority.

The law officially recognized six religions – Islam (88 percent of the population of 238 million), Protestantism (6 percent) Catholicism (3 percent), Hinduism (2 percent) Buddhism and Confucianism (both less than 1 percent) – but orders the state not to interfere in the practice of other religions such as Ahmadiyah, currently numbering between 100,000 to 400,000 adherents. These figures are based on a census carried out in 2000; the results of a 2010 census have not yet been released.

In 2005, however, the MUI issued a fatwa or religious opinion against the Ahmadiyah and urged President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to ban the sect. Under pressure from hard-line groups and Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali, the government issued a Joint Ministerial Decree in 2008 forbidding Ahmadis to worship publicly on the grounds that they had deviated from true Islam – an act qualifying as blasphemy under the 1965 law.

The decree drove adherents underground and gave tacit permission for hardliners to attack Ahmadi communities throughout Indonesia with little fear of prosecution – culminating in the Cikeusik murders on Feb. 6.

The 1965 law, Article 156(A) of the penal code and the 2008 Ahmadiyah decree clearly contravene international law, which differentiates between simple religious insult and incitement to hostile and violent actions, according to an October 2010 Freedom House report entitled “Policing Belief.” Only incitement to hatred can be legitimately restricted, whereas freedom of expression includes the right to offensive or controversial religious comment.

International law also allows for freedom of belief, contradicted by Indonesia’s requirement that every citizen choose one of the six official religions and display it on his or her identity card. Atheism or adherence to an unrecognized religion is simply not an option, clashing with Article 29 of Indonesia’s constitution, which stipulates that all citizens may choose and practice their own religion.

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