10/28/2011, 00.00
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Religious tolerance bill creates news problems in Indonesia

by Mathias Hariyadi
Parliament and government submit draft bill to solve confessional conflicts, which have flared up in recent years. However, the proposal has generated a heated debate among scholars and in civil society. Bishops call for “a law that guarantees the right to practice one’s faith”.
Jakarta (AsiaNews) – Far from being a breakthrough, the religious tolerance bill has stirred controversy on fundamental issues. Drafted by the three government bodies, namely the Ministry for Religious Affairs, the Interior Ministry and the Ministry for People’s Welfare, the bill on religious tolerance, known here as the Rencana Undang-undang (RUU) Kerukunan Beragama, was presented to the Indonesian House of Parliament earlier this year (February 2011). After a series of discussions between members of the Eighth Commission of the House and top government officials from the three ministries, the RUU Kerukunan Beragama has met with strong criticism in Indonesian civil society and it is unclear when it might be adopted.

What is more urgent is not to turn the bill on religious tolerance into law, but “to come up with a bill that guarantees the freedom to practice one’s faith,” said Fr Benny Susetyo Pr, from the Interfaith Commission of the Indonesian Bishops of Conference.

For the clergyman, the Indonesian Constitution 1945 has not yet settled several fundamental issues, including how to guarantee people the right to practice their faith. “In my personal opinion, the most urgent thing to do is to put into practice the bill on free religious practice,” he said in an open discussion.

An open discussion was recently held by the National Awakening Party (PKB), a moderate Muslim party established by the late President Abdurrahman Wahid, in cooperation with the Asian Muslim Action Network to critique the bill.

The RUU Kerukunan Beragama does not address a number of concerns on several fundamental issues, some important scholars from different universities noted. For instance, instead of fostering interfaith tolerance and peaceful coexistence in a country prone to sectarian clashes between Muslims and Christians, the bill does the opposite by creating new problems between religious groups and in the relationship between citizens and the state over religious freedom.

Held in parliament in mid-October, the seminar saw three noted Muslim and Catholic scholars critique the bill from different perspectives. The three keynote speakers were Jesuit priest and philosophy and politics professor Fr Franz Magnis-Suseno from the High School of Philosophy Institute, Prof Siti Musdah Mulia from the Islamic State University, who is also the current chairwoman of the Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace (ICRP), and Dr Ali Munhanif, also from the Islamic State University.

All three agreed that the bill has created serious problems rather than promote religious tolerance, despite what its name says.

According to Prof Siti Musdah Mulia, the bill’s name is misleading. “I have no idea what kind of religious tolerance it addresses,” she said. “The bill has nothing to say about this fundamental issue”.

A number of problems in relation to religious tolerance are evident. They include violent actions against other religious denominations or Ahmadis. Several hard-line Muslim groups view the latter as a false Islamic sect, Prof Mulia said. Such problems are not the result of many ideas on the issue but of government regulation.

Prof Mulia said that the Indonesian government only recognises five official religions, namely Catholic and Protestant Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism (Kong Hu Cu).

“In fact, millions of Indonesians practice other religious beliefs that are not officially recognised,” she noted. For her, adopting any particular religious belief is something very personal and “the state should not intervene”. Instead, the Indonesian government has tended to project a biased image of religious tolerance in the country.

For Prof Franz Magnis-Suseno, the bill is easilyy subject to unexpected intervention by the state and from other parties with vested interests.

The Jesuit priest and philosopher noted that under Chapter 17, Paragraph 2, of the bill people can proclaiming their faith only to people who have not adopted a religion or who are atheists. “This is very problematic since the state has officially said that every Indonesian citizen is legally expected to adopt a particular religion,” Magnis said.

Another legal and political problem is the fact that people with no religion can be easily become scapegoats. Communists, for example, were politically targeted under the regime of President Suharto (1967-1998). Being an atheist is politically dangerous in Indonesia.

The notion of “disseminating one’s faith” is another problem issue according to the clergyman. Each party has its own definition of what proclaiming the faith means, Fr Magnis explained. Christians and Catholics have their own idea about it; Islam has its own, based on a different spirit and atmosphere.

Another issue concerns places of worship. It is ridiculous that building a place where people can worship needs the approval of neighbours. “The state should allow any place of worship as long as it can provide parking space and not disturb others,” he said.
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