For the 13th year in a row, Indonesia has been included on a watchlist of countries with appalling religious freedoms.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom said that Indonesia’s tradition of pluralism had been strained in recent years by “ongoing sectarian tensions, societal violence and the arrest of individuals considered religiously deviant.”
Dwindling religious tolerance in Aceh, which has adopted its own interpretation of Shariah law, is specifically highlighted in the report, including the closure of 29 churches and five Buddhist temples in the district of Singkil and the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, during the past year.
The report also mentions last November’s attack on an allegedly heretical sect in Aceh’s Bireuen district that killed the sect leader, Tengku Ayub Syakuban, and one of his students. None of the around 100 people participating in the attack have been arrested.
The impunity enjoyed by the people behind the Bireuen attack is not unique, with hard-line groups operating freely with few consequences, harassing religious minorities, destroying places of worship and pressuring local officials to detain and restrict those accused of blasphemy and proselytizing minority faiths, the report says.
Last month, the Surabaya District Court in East Java acquitted Rois Al-Hukama of orchestrating a deadly anti-Shiite rampage in Sampang district, Madura Island, that left two people dead in 2012.
A mob of 500 Sunni Muslims rampaged through a village in Sampang’s Omben subdistrict on Aug. 26, hacking one Shiite Muslim to death and setting fire to more than 30 homes. Those who remained in the region, or refused to convert to Sunni Islam, were forced to live in spartan conditions in an unadorned sports complex. Nearly one year on, the community still lives in exile.
Although President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has publicly supported religious tolerance, members of his cabinet “sometimes send mixed messages on religious freedom,” the report states.
The US commission, appointed by the government, noted that Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali had publicly supported provincial bans on the Ahmadiyah group and suggested that religious tolerance could only be attained by converting Ahmadiyah and Shiite members to the mainstream form of Sunni Islam.
The commission recommended that the US government create programs to increase the capacity of Indonesian human rights defenders, members of the provincial Joint Forums for Religious Tolerance (FKUB), as well as judges and law enforcement officers, so that they could mediate and address sectarian conflicts and religiously charged violence.
It also urged the Indonesian government to repeal a 2008 joint ministerial decree banning the Ahmadiyah from proselytizing, a 2006 decree that regulates the building of houses of worship, and Article 156 of the Indonesian Criminal Code, which outlaws blasphemy.
An Indonesian pro-democracy organization, the Setara Institute, cited 264 instances of violence directed at religious minorities last year alone.
Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, likened the archipelago’s increasing levels of intolerance to “a form of toxic osmosis.”
“It can and will spread and become a much more serious problem,” he said in a recent report.