Indonesia Government Will Revise Religious Decree

JAKARTA - The Indonesian government recently decided to revise a controversial ministerial decree on the establishment of houses of worship in a bid to curb interfaith violence in the nation with the world's largest population of Muslims.

"Hopefully, revisions can be completed later in September," Minister of Religious Affairs Maftuh Basyuni was quoted by Antara as saying after a meeting to discuss the joint decree at the Ministry of Home Affairs.

Basyuni said the planned revisions to the decree, issued jointly by the religious affairs ministry and the home ministry in 1969, are aimed mainly at ensuring freedom of religion and avoiding multiple interpretations. He did not elaborate further.

Minister of Home Affairs M. Ma'ruf, who also attended the meeting, said the ministerial decree would be revised so as to be "harmonized and synchronized" with Law No. 32/2004 on regional administration.

Ma'ruf had earlier said the decree, blamed partly by some people for attacks on followers of other faiths, was outdated and needed a review in order to adjust to the current situation.

"The decree was issued in 1969 and we have experienced many changes in the government system. Therefore, it should be consistent with Law No. 32/2004," he said.

The joint ministerial decree requires that permission from local authorities and local residents be obtained before constructing places of worship.

The decision to revise the decree was prompted by dozens of Muslims hard-liners' forcible closures of Christian houses of worship in Bandung and neighboring districts in West Java.

However, police have so far refused to take any action against activists of the Anti-Apostasy Movement Alliance (AGAP), including the Islam Defenders Front (FPI), who claimed responsibility for the closures.

The police justified their inaction by saying the church closures were not violent and that the decree only allows law enforcement personnel to take action if a religious dispute turns into a criminal act.

However, the law also forbids civilians from taking the law into their hands.

The church closures drew strong reactions from many people, particularly moderate Muslims, with some calling for the revocation of the ministerial decree to stop such interfaith conflict.

Nevertheless, others have argued that the decree should be maintained, saying that it was not the key issue in settling religious conflict in Indonesia.

The crucial problem for the nation was how to promote religious tolerance and strengthen relations among followers of different faiths, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) leader Hasyim Muzadi said.

"Should the SKB (the ministerial decree) be revoked while churches and their neighbors don't have good relations, it would continue to create problems," he said on Tuesday. “So, I call on Muslims to increase tolerance and for outsiders not to interfere.”

Hasyim also urged Christians to be more introspective when it comes to establishing churches, while taking into account their relations with Muslims and others in their community.

Stronger sentiment was voiced by clerics from East Java's Madura Island, who said the ministerial decree should be made into law in order to strengthen regulations on the establishment of places of worship.

"The SKB is substantial in religious life. It's a pillar that should not be weakened, let alone revoked," said Madurese Muslim cleric Kholilurrohman. “I disagree with the perception that the decree has led to violations of human rights.”

Christians locally and internationally, however, have called on the Indonesian government to take action to prevent militant activity in West Java amid the fear of the massive anti-Christian activity in the area. They have also called the government to investigate reports of the complicity of local government and security officials in this activity and to revoke legislation incompatible with international guarantees of religious freedom.