Indonesia still denies religious minorities freedom to worship

Between 2014 and 2019, at least 549 incidents of religious freedom violations had affected nearly 1,000 members of minority religions and indigenous faiths.

Haeril Halim

Haeril Halim

The Jakarta Post


A group of people put a banner which resists the activities of Ahmadis near an Ahmadiyah mosque, in Sawangan, Depok, West Java, on Saturday (Jun 24, 2017), a day before Idul Fitri. (Courrtesy of Tim Pembela Kebebasan Sipil/-)

February 1, 2023

JAKARTA – Indonesia remains a notable laggard in ensuring religious freedom, despite the commitment it made before the United Nations Human Rights Committee to comply with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Country submissions of Indonesia from 2012 to 2022, as well as shadow reports submitted by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and concluding observations from the committee examining the country’s compliance with the ICCPR, indicate that it has failed to fulfill the right to religion for minority groups.

In its initial periodic report to the committee in 2012, after it had ratified the ICCPR in 2005, Indonesia states that freedom of religion is inherent and that “the state must respect, uphold and protect the right”.

However, such “diplomatic jargon” that Indonesia frequently uses at the UN is alien to religious minorities in the country.

According to documents submitted by NGOs and the National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM) to the committee, hundreds of Shia Muslims fled their village in Madura in August 2012 after angry mobs attacked and burned their houses following a decision by a local Muslim body that declared their teaching “deviant”.

Many of these Shia Muslims are still displaced, living in temporary shelters, and local residents have frequently attempted, with the support of government officials, to convert them to Sunni Islam in exchange for safe passage returning to their village.

Frequent attacks on followers of the Ahmadiyah minority religion also highlight Indonesia’s failure to protect religious minorities.

In its submission to the committee, Komnas HAM reported that from 2007 to 2012, it had documented various violations of religious freedoms by both state and non-state perpetrators, including an inability to build houses of worship by minority groups as well as the forced closure of churches.

In its concluding observations on Indonesia’s initial report in 2013, the committee expressed concerns over the country’s failure to protect Shia and Ahmadiyah followers, as well as Christians, and the lenient sentences given to perpetrators of the Madura attack. It also said the 1965 Blasphemy Law was inconsistent with the ICCPR and must be revoked immediately.

The committee’s concluding observations also emphasized that the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion should include the right for people to choose not to have any religion or belief.

Instead of complying, Indonesia maintained in its follow-up to the committee’s observations that exercising the right to religion or belief must be practiced “responsibly”, and that this was subject to limitations to protect public safety and moral values, as well as the fundamental rights and freedom of “others”.

Indonesia insisted this restriction was in line with the ICCPR and thus, there was no need to repeal the 1965 Blasphemy Law because it did not contradict the 1945 Constitution.

It further said the government was committed “to protect pluralism”, and that the Religious Affairs Ministry was preparing a bill on the protection of religious communities to ensure “social harmony among followers of different religions and faiths”.

Violations of religious freedom, however, continued to overshadow Indonesia’s second periodic review in 2022, ahead of which NGOs and Komnas HAM submitted their list of issues prior to reporting (LOIPR).

Between 2014 and 2019, at least 549 incidents of religious freedom violations had affected nearly 1,000 members of minority religions, ranging from Shia, Ahmadiyah, Christian, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and to indigenous faiths. These violations included the destruction and forced closures of houses of worship, the criminalization of adherents under the Blasphemy Law, the prohibition of worship and the intimidation of religious minorities, including physical attacks.

It is ironic but true that government officials made up the majority of perpetrators.

Three leaders of the Gafatar minority religion were each sentenced to five years in prison for “blaspheming” Islam through the group’s teachings.

Komnas HAM renewed its calls in the LOIPR for the committee to urge Indonesia to repeal the 1965 Blasphemy Law and other discriminatory regulations.

In 2018, the Jakarta prosecutors’ office launched an Android app called Smart Pakem for the public to monitor and report any religious beliefs and groups considered “deviant”.

Students from outside the six official religions also have found it difficult to exercise their right to not attend the religious studies provided by their schools, and they sometimes face verbal harassment from religious teachers calling them “atheist”, according to NGOs’ submissions to the committee.

Responding to the LOIPRs, the committee demanded ahead of the country’s second periodic report that Indonesia provide information on what efforts it had taken to protect and promote freedom of religion and belief.

The committee also asked Indonesia to explain the compatibility of the 1965 Blasphemy Law and the Smart Pakem app with the ICCPR, as well as the measures it had taken to ensure no discrimination in the construction of houses of worship in the 2006 Joint Ministerial Decree on Houses of Worship.

In its second periodic report submitted to the committee in 2022, Indonesia acknowledged that managing “friction” in a diverse country like Indonesia was “challenging”, but it still defended the government’s decision not to repeal the 1965 Blasphemy Law and the 2006 Joint Ministerial Decree on Houses of Worship, saying they were necessary “to maintain religious harmony in the country”.

Problems related to the establishment of houses of worship were caused mainly by “lack of communication” between religious communities and the local government, according to Indonesia’s report. It also said the Smart Pakem app had been withdrawn in January 2020 following inputs from communities and civil society groups.

At the time of this writing, the committee has yet to upload its concluding observations of Indonesia’s second periodic report.

Indonesia has always been resistant to comply with any calls to improve the religious freedom for minority groups. There are several reasons behind this.

Law enforcement agencies, especially the police, always fail to prevent attacks on religious minorities, despite having prior knowledge of imminent threats to such communities.

Government officials’ perceptions about minority religions and their adherents are also another barrier in ensuring religious freedom in Indonesia, as officials perceive them as “deviant”. There is also a tendency to blame religious minorities for any attacks they experienced, instead of siding with them as the victims of such incidents.

Mob attacks also continue to reoccur across the country, due to the lenient sentences handed to perpetrators in the few cases that were brought to the courts.

In many cases, the police did not launch any investigation into the attacks and instead charged religious minorities under the Blasphemy Law for their “deviant” beliefs.

At the legislation level, the 1965 Blasphemy Law and the joint ministerial decree are the main drivers of attacks against minority religions and their adherents in Indonesia.

What is even worse is that Indonesia’s newly revised Criminal Code has broadened the scope of blasphemy offenses from one to six provisions, including punishment of up to two years in prison for individuals who “persuade someone to be a nonbeliever”.

The Blasphemy Law has been misused repeatedly to criminalize peaceful views related to religion and those deemed to insult the majority religions.

The broadened provisions may provide further opportunity for the authorities to use the law against religious and ethnic minorities, thereby presenting a clear setback to the protection of religious freedom in Indonesia.

It is clear that minority groups do not enjoy the right to religion and worship guaranteed under Article 18 of the ICCPR.

Attacks against the country’s minority Muslim groups, such as Ahmadiyah and Shia, are grim examples of the violations of religious freedom that have overshadowed Indonesia’s periodic reports since 2012.

Repeated calls from NGOs, Komnas HAM and the Human Rights Committee to repeal the 1965 Blasphemy Law have fallen on deaf ears.

As Indonesia assumes greater international prominence following its successful Group of 20 presidency last year, now is the time for the country to take human rights seriously, starting with treating religious minorities with dignity, not as second-class citizens.

The writer is pursing a master in international relations at the University of Melbourne.

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