Jakarta (AsiaNews) - President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono left Indonesia on a six-day trip that will take him to various nations, including Sweden and the United States, where he will receive a prize for promoting religious freedom. The latter has provoked a controversy between the Indonesian government and the country's religious minorities, backed by human rights associations and moderate Muslim groups. However, the president and his ministers have dismissed criticism arguing that the award is designed to recognise the "achievements of the entire nation", not "the success of a single individual."
The controversy began right after the announcement that President Yudhoyono had won the World Statesman Award, a prize offered by the New York-based Appeal of Conscience Foundation (ACF), which was founded in 1965. The award goes to a person who distinguished him or herself in the defence of religious freedom.
The first harsh attack against the award came from philosopher and Jesuit priest Fr Franz Magnis Suseno, followed by others who made statements against this year's winner.
The president was lambasted for his lack of "political courage" in ending sectarian violence, and changing Indonesian society, the world's most populous Muslim and overwhelmingly Sunni nation.
In recent months, repeated attacks have in fact targeted Shias, Ahmadis, Protestants and Catholics without eliciting any significant action on the part of the central government.
In recent days, Prof Syafii Maarif, former chairman of Muhammadiyah, a moderate and the second largest Muslim organisation in the country, also harshly criticised the award to Yudhoyono.
Other protests have occurred in the capital, culminating on 23 May with the large-scale participation of various groups and human rights organisations.
Meanwhile, the Indonesian president left for Sweden yesterday, on the first leg of his foreign tour.
After meeting with political and business leaders in Stockholm, he will fly to New York tomorrow for the controversial award.