Places of worship decrees violate minority rights, say religious leaders
by Benteng Reges
Religious and political leaders call for changes to new decrees ; they tell AsiaNews that the new regulations are absurd, invasive red tape and unconstitutional.

Jakarta (AsiaNews) – The new regulations concerning the right to build places of worship violate the spirit of the 1945 constitution, minority rights and the principles of Pancasila, which recognises religious freedom. Catholic, Christian, Buddhist and Hindu leaders "strongly reject" the new decrees on building places of worship because they will just lead to social and inter-religious tensions and "do not guarantee freedom to minority religious groups who are currently denied the right to exercise their religious freedom as prescribed by the constitution".

The new decrees—Nos 8 and 9—"follow the principles of the 1969 decree and fail to provide the necessary conditions for harmonious inter-faith relations. They instead have the opposite effect".

The 1969 Ministerial Decree required that each religious community get a local permit and the approval of local residents before it could build a place of worship. However, permits were hard to come by and Christians were generally forced to worship in semi clandestine places.

The new decrees were drafted following consultations with religious leaders, government officials and security forces. They uphold the old principles but clarify some of the requirements. For instance, they stipulate that a congregation can apply for a permit if it has at least 90 members and its demand is accepted by at least 60 members of another religious community.

Opposition to the new regulations has been voiced in parliament by 42 Catholic and Protestant lawmakers. Constantinus Ponggaw, a member of parliament with the Christian-based Prosperity and Peace Party, said at a press conference that "the new rules worry the faithful and run counter to the spirit of the 1945 constitution. They also breach minorities' human rights".

He was joined by Democratic Party MP Francis Xavier Soekarno and National Reawakening Party MP Nusron Wahid, whose party is backed by former President Abdurrahman Wahid, as well as other lawmakers.

Parliamentary Speaker Muhaimin Iskandar acknowledged the dissenting voices and promised to forward their demands to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Iskandar, a moderate Muslim, said that he agreed with the protest, noting that "the government should not intervene in people's religious life but should let them profess their creed as they see fit".

Among religious leaders the divide pits minority representatives against Muslim fundamentalist clerics from the Indonesian Council of Ulemas (MUI), who are the decrees' strongest supporters. Notwithstanding complaints from Christians, Hindus, Buddhists and Confucians (Khong Hu Cu), for the MUI the decrees are the final word.

Rev Weinata Sairin, from the Indonesian Communion of Christian Protestant Churches, told AsiaNews that his organisation opposes the decrees because "religious practice is a right. If the decrees are implemented, it will be another form of discrimination against minorities."

"Moreover," he insisted, "what are we to do with already functioning churches? If they don't bother anyone why should we get a new permit? Freedom of worship should not be reduced to mere regulation".

The secretary-general of the Indonesian Committee on Religion and Peace Theophilus Bella, who also chairs the Jakarta Catholic Communication Forum, agreed. "The Joint Ministerial Decree goes against [five principles of] Pancasila and threatens religious harmony. The new rules give every administrative authority, including local ones, the right to grant or withhold permits to build churches," Bella said. "We are concerned about all this red tape that is invading people's private lives."

"The notion that it should take 90 faithful and 60 neighbours to get a permit is irrational. Where can we get 90 Christians in the same place, especially in rural areas! It will be even harder to get 60 neighbours to agree to let a non Muslim place of worship be built. It is already very difficult to buy a piece of land, imagine trying to get community approval [for a church]," he explained. Instead, "an inter-faith dialogue commission should deal with the issue, not the government".

For his part, Hindu leader Gusti Moraus said "The decrees do not have the approval of minorities, who in any event, are non entities".

For MUI member Amidhan, "the decrees are only meant to regulate social interaction. If we do not regulate building places of worship, they will multiply, creating competition between religions and cause public disorder."

According to the Commission on Religion and Peace, more than a thousand churches have been attacked, many destroyed, for the lack of building permits.

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