In religion’s name: abuses against religious minorities in Indonesia


On February 6, 2011, in Cikeusik, a village in western Java, around 1,500 Islamist militants attacked two dozen members of the Ahmadiyah religious community with stones, sticks, and machetes. The mob shouted, “You are infidels! You are heretics!” As captured on video, local police were present at the scene but many left when the crowd began descending on the Ahmadiyah house. By the time the attack was over, three Ahmadiyah men had been bludgeoned to death.

Ahmad Masihuddin, a 25-year-old Ahmadiyah student, recalled, “They held my hands and cut my belt with a machete. They cut my shirt, pants, and undershirt. I was only in my underwear. They took 2.5 million rupiah (US$270) and my Blackberry [cell phone]. They tried to take off my underwear and cut my penis. I was laying in the fetal position. I tried to protect my face, but my left eye was stabbed. Then I heard them say, ‘He is dead, he is dead.’”

While the Cikeusik attack was particularly gruesome, it is part of a growing trend of religious intolerance and violence in Indonesia. Targets have included Ahmadis (the Ahmadiyah), Baha’is, Christians, and Shias, among others. There have also been cases of Christians in Christian-majority areas preventing Sunni Muslim mosques from being built. Affected individuals have ranged from people with permits to build houses of worship to those seeking to have their actual religion listed on their ID cards, to children bullied by teachers and other pupils at school.

In important respects, Indonesia is rightly touted for its religious diversity and tolerance. Since President Suharto was forced to step down in 1998, after more than three decades in power, inaugurating an era of greater freedom in Indonesia, viewpoints long repressed have emerged into the open. A strong thread of religious militancy is among them. As detailed in this report, the government has not responded decisively when that intolerance is expressed through acts of harassment, intimidation, and violence, which often affect freedom of expression and association, creating a climate in which more such attacks can be expected.

According to the Jakarta-based Setara Institute, which monitors religious freedom in Indonesia, there were 216 cases of violent attacks on religious minorities in 2010, 244 cases in 2011, and 264 cases in 2012. The Wahid Institute, another Jakarta-based 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.

In researching this report, Human Rights Watch interviewed 16 members of religious minorities who had been physically assaulted by Islamist militants in seven separate incidents−four of them sustaining serious injuries. Twenty-two others had their houses of worship or own houses burned down in six separate incidents. We also summarize here many more incidents reported in the press or documented by other investigators. In addition to intimidation and physical assaults, houses of worship have been closed, construction of new worship facilities halted, and adherents of minority faiths subjected to arbitrary arrest on blasphemy and other charges.

In most cases, the perpetrators of the intimidation and violence have been Sunni militant groups − described throughout this report as Islamist groups − at times acting with the tacit, or occasionally open, support of government officials and police. Groups that have participated in or supported the targeting of minority religions include: the Islamic People’s Forum (Forum Umat Islam, FUI), the Indonesian Muslim Communication Forum (Forum Komunikasi Muslim Indonesia, known as Forkami), the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI), Hizbut-Tahrir Indonesia, and the Islamic Reformist Movement (Gerakan Islam Reformis, Garis). These groups are united by their espousal of an interpretation of Sunni Islam that labels non-Muslims, excluding Christians and Jews, as “infidels,” and labels Muslims who do not adhere to what they define as Sunni orthodoxy as “blasphemers.”

The harassment and violence directed at minority religious groups is facilitated by a legal architecture in Indonesia that purports to maintain “religious harmony,” but in practice undermines religious freedom. Indonesia’s 1945 constitution explicitly guarantees freedom of religion, as does the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Indonesia is a party. However, the Indonesian government has long enacted, and in recent years strengthened, legislation and regulations that have subjected minority religions to official discrimination and made them extremely vulnerable to the members of the majority community who take the law into their own hands.

In numerous instances documented in this report, harassment and intimidation of minority communities by militant Islamist groups has been facilitated by the active or passive involvement of Indonesian government officials and security forces. These groups have cooperated with, or applied pressure on, local authorities to prevent the issuance of building permits for religious minorities’ houses of worship, sought the removal of religious minority communities to new locations, or to stop them from worshipping in their area altogether. In some cases, Christian churches that have met all of the legal requirements for construction have had their permits revoked by local authorities after pressure from Islamist groups, even in the face of Indonesian Supreme Court decisions ruling the construction legal.

This report also documents incidents in which police failed to take action to prevent violence against religious minorities or provided no assistance in the aftermath of such incidents. Police all too often have been unwilling to properly investigate reports of violence against religious minorities, suggesting complicity with the perpetrators. Nor has the justice system proven to be a defender of religious minorities. In the few cases of violence that have gone to the courts, prosecutors have sought ridiculously lenient sentences for the perpetrators of serious crimes, which the judges seem content to oblige. The exception has been cases construed by authorities as acts of “terrorism,” as with the bombing of a church in Solo, Central Java, on September 25, 2011, in which a suicide bomber died and the wife of its funder is still being prosecuted for money laundering, and an attempt to bomb another church in Serpong in April 2012, in which 19 people were arrested.

Indonesia’s religious minorities also face entrenched discrimination in their dealings with the Indonesian government bureaucracy. During the Suharto era, Indonesians were required to list their religion on their national identification cards, choosing from one of five recognized religions, a practice that discriminated against, and put in an untenable position, followers of hundreds of minority religions. Although the current Population Administration Law gives citizens the choice of whether or not to declare their religious faith on their ID cards, those who wish to declare a faith still must choose from a list of six protected religions. Individuals who do not declare a religion risk being labeled “godless” by some Muslim clerics and officials and subject to possible blasphemy prosecution. In 2012 alone, a self-declared atheist, a Shia cleric, and a spiritualist have all been jailed for blasphemy after listing Islam as their religion on their ID cards.

Indonesian government institutions have also played a role in the violation of the rights and freedoms of the country’s religious minorities. Those institutions, which include the Ministry of Religious Affairs, the Coordinating Board for Monitoring Mystical Beliefs in Society (Badan Koordinasi Pengawas Aliran Kepercayaan Masyarakat, Bakor Pakem) under the Attorney General’s Office, and the semi-official Indonesian Ulama 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.”

Indonesia has in recent years made meaningful progress toward strengthening democracy and respect for human rights. Those gains, along with perceptions of Indonesia as a bulwark of a progressive, moderate Islam, have prompted international praise of Indonesia as a model Islamic democracy. For instance, in November 2010, US President Barack Obama, when visiting Jakarta, praised “the spirit of religious tolerance that is enshrined in Indonesia’s constitution, and that remains one of this country’s defining and inspiring characteristics.”

If that reputation is to remain intact, strong and immediate action is needed, including more forceful leadership by Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to reform the laws and government practices that have facilitated abuses against religious minorities. The Indonesian government needs to meet its obligations to hold accountable police, government officials, and members of groups implicated in the abuses. Indonesia’s reputation as a country “underpinned by the principle of religious freedom and tolerance” can only be realized if the government takes steps to curb the increasing targeting of and discrimination against religious minorities, returning to its founding principles, and fostering a national culture of acceptance and respect for all religious groups.

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