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Indonesia's Court Strikes a Blow to Religious Freedom

Carl Moeller | Open Doors USA | Friday, May 14, 2010

Indonesia's Court Strikes a Blow to Religious Freedom

May 14, 2010

With President Obama tentatively set to visit Indonesia next month, the world's most populous Muslim country faces a public relations crisis of its own making. Indonesia is by reputation an influential and tolerant center of global Islam. Now it must decide whether it wishes to provide carte blanche to the religious extremists in its midst, or whether it will live up to its highest ideals and protect religious freedom for all of its 240 million people. Over 88 percent of Indonesia's people follow Islam. Protestant Christians make up 5.9 percent and Catholics 3.1 percent.

Last month the nation's highest court showed us which way the country leans. The court upheld a 1965 blasphemy law that punishes citizens for straying from any one of six officially approved faiths. The measure criminalizes any attempt to "publicize, recommend or organize public support" for any religion different than the orthodox versions of six sanctioned faiths: Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Catholicism, Protestantism and Confucianism. Those who run afoul of the law can face prison sentences of up to five years.

Human rights advocates were quick to condemn the ruling. "We are deeply disappointed by the Constitutional Court's decision, which is a major setback for religious freedom," said Mervyn Thomas of Christian Solidarity Worldwide. "Indonesia has a proud tradition of religious pluralism, and its constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but the blasphemy law set out in article 156A of the Indonesian Criminal Code violates its own constitution and damages Indonesia's reputation as a pluralistic and tolerant society."

Justices said the 8-1 ruling was needed to maintain public order. During the court proceedings, Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali and Justice and Human Rights Minister Patrialis Akbar testified that Indonesia needs the law to protect minorities from violence. So much for legal impartiality!

The law may be needed to protect the justices themselves. Over 500 police were deployed around the court out of fear that militants from the Islamic Defenders Front, a vigilante group, would attack if the justices had struck down the law.

The ruling has doubtlessly strengthened the hands of the growing numbers of extremist groups in Indonesia. Religious minority groups have long said the blasphemy law encourages discrimination and intimidation against them. Moderate Muslims, religious minorities, democracy advocates and rights groups who believe the country must do more to uphold religious freedom unsuccessfully petitioned the high court to overturn the law.

Outside observers agree. "The Constitutional Court's decision may give extremists cover to enforce a version of religious conformity not shared by the majority of Indonesians," said Leonard Leo, chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. "Hopefully, the Indonesian government will recognize that overturning the blasphemy decree advances its fight against terrorism and extremism and enhances its reputation for religious tolerance and pluralism."

There are, unfortunately, plenty of reasons to question the accuracy of that reputation. The Wahid Institute, a moderate Muslim group, recently issued an annual report counting 35 cases of government violations of religious freedom (28 against Christians) and 93 incidents of community intolerance of churches in Indonesia last year. The highest amount of violations and incidents occurred in West Java.

In the midst of this repression, Indonesia's Christian community continues its amazing growth. Some believe that the annual growth among evangelicals is around four percent (approximately 504,000 people). According to a recent and prominent report in Time magazine, "Christianity's Surge in Indonesia," the church is reaching large numbers of Indonesians, who are giving the gospel a fresh hearing:

"As in many other crowded, developing-world countries where a person can feel lost in a teeming slum, the concept of individual salvation is a powerful one. At the same time, the attempted hijacking of Muslim theology by a small band of homegrown terrorists who have killed hundreds of Indonesians in recent years has led some to question their nation's majority faith. So, too, has the general trend toward a more conservative Islam that has given rise to hundreds of religiously inspired bylaws, from caning for beer-drinking to enforced dress codes for women."

Time goes on to note that this Christian growth has drawn alarm and anger from Muslim groups, which sometimes resort to violence. Sadly, Indonesia's commitment to equal rights has been tepid at best. "The government has been timid to acknowledge violations of religious freedom," Wahid Institute director Yenny Zanuba Wahid said, "but these are real and are carried out directly by government bodies or indirectly as a result (of government) policies."

To repair its reputation, protect its citizens, block the growth of religious extremism and safeguard religious liberty, the Indonesian government must jettison its timidity. It's time for the world's largest Muslim country to step up to the plate to provide religious freedom for all of its citizens.

Carl Moeller, Ph.D., is president and CEO of Open Doors USA (www.OpenDoorsUSA.org), the American arm of Open Doors International, a worldwide ministry which has supported and strengthened persecuted Christians around the world since 1955.