Jakarta (AsiaNews) - After weeks of protests by inter-faith groups, Gajah Mada University (UGM), one of Indonesia's oldest and most renowned centres of higher education, suspended a controversial regulation that prevented people from openly professing atheism or any religion other than the six recognised by the state.
The regulation issued by the dean of the prestigious University of Yogyakarta, in central Java, had sparked widespread dissatisfaction among students, for whom the academic institution should instead promote pluralism and religious freedom.
UGM spokeswoman Ms Wijayanti said the university had urged the various groups that make up the institution to set aside any "confessional" logic in order to promote exchanges and openness among its students.
The university had issued its latest rules on "ethics" and religion in order to monitor students' conduct, as well as "prevent" possible violent sectarian (religious and ethnic) incidents among students.
"What we want to do is just put in rules of conduct so that students can behave in a befitting manner. We did not want people to adopt any particular religion," the spokeswoman said.
The new guidelines are designed to "amend" a previous version issued by Dean Pratikno, which, in chapter 12, said that students "are not allowed to adopt or disseminate thoughts or ideas on atheism or religious beliefs' not recommended by the Indonesian state."
Under the new rules, the university bans "inappropriate behaviour or hostile acts of a sectarian nature" with regards to "traditional faith, culture and values."
The main point concerns the ancestral religions (aliran kepercayaan) practiced by millions of natives, especially in tribal areas and in remote areas of the Indonesian archipelago.
According to spokeswoman Wijayanti, the amendment is the result of the views expressed by all involved parties and is merely a rule of conduct. "It has nothing to do with the university's alleged support for atheism among its students," she explained.
For more than 30 years, the Indonesian state has officially recognised only six religions: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism.
In December, civil society groups strongly objected to Parliament's decision to force people to carry identity cards indicating their religion.
For critics, such a requirement is in fact a "major obstacle" to strengthening the country's democracy at a time of rising sectarian and confessional attacks, carried out by the authorities, extremist groups and isolated fanatics.
In the past, AsiaNews has reported on incidents of discrimination and actual attacks against people who are openly atheist.
In one incident, a man said on his Facebook profile that he did not believe in any religion and for this reason ran the risk of imprisonment and heavy corporal punishment.
In Poso (Central Sulawesi) and Ambon (Moluccas), the scene of sectarian strife, the presence of a person's religion on their identity card can be a matter of life or death. In fact, that was enough at many checkpoints in town to be executed on the spot by armed gangs.
Indonesia is the most populous Muslim nation in the world. Some 86 per cent of its population is Muslim, mostly Sunni. Christians represent 5.7 per cent of the total with Catholics just over 3 per cent. Hindus are 1.8 per cent whilst 3.4 per cent profess other religions.
Although the country's constitution recognises religious freedom, minorities have become increasingly the victims of violence and abuse.
Islamic law has been implemented in Aceh province, but Islam's influence is becoming more radical and extreme in the lives of citizens in many other areas.