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Indonesia: Rising religious intolerance demands stronger response

2 November 2011

Just before noon on a late September day, a man walked into a crowded church in the city of Solo in Indonesia's Central Java and detonated a homemade bomb.

The blast killed the bomber himself and injured more than 20 bystanders. It was the latest troubling example of religious violence in the Southeast Asian country-and a deadly reminder of how much work remains to quell underlying religious tensions.

But while Indonesia's leaders and mainstream religious authorities are quick to make public appeals for calm and tolerance, such violent incidents continue.

Earlier in the month, on the island of Ambon in eastern Indonesia, false rumours that a Muslim taxi driver had been killed by Christians sparked violence that saw three people killed and more than 100 houses razed to the ground.

In February, villagers stormed a house in western Java, where members of the Ahmadiyya community, a Muslim minority, had taken shelter. The villagers were reportedly enraged after one of the Ahmadis inside the house had been accused of proselytizing-banned by decree in Indonesia. The attack left three people dead.

All of these troubling incidents are part of a gradual trend that has seen religious intolerance rise in recent years.

The Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace has been tracking religious freedom indicators since 2008 in roughly one-third of the country's provinces. The group has recorded at least 200 incidents each year.

"We can say the tendency for religious freedoms in Indonesia is under threat," says Bonar Tigor Naipospos, the group's vice-chairman. "The number may not increase drastically, but it's constant and increasing slowly. And the government lacks capacity to handle this issue."

While Indonesia's leaders may speak of promoting tolerance and religious freedoms, Naipospos says the government hasn't prioritized the issue in practice. Frequently, the monumental job of promoting religious tolerance is shuffled off to local governments, which often lack the resources to enact lasting change, he says.

"The government must have a clear policy on this," Naipospos says. "They must push and promote dialogue between all the religious parties. Through the education system, through the media, they must promote tolerance and harmony."

The Jakarta-based Wahid Institute also documents incidents of intolerance and violations on religious freedoms. A report released last year documented a rise in such incidents – from threats of violence to outright physical attacks. Recorded examples of religious freedom violations almost doubled.

Badrus Samsul Fata, a programme officer with the organisation, says the government must do more.

"The government seems powerless right now to enforce and promote tolerance," he says.

Fata says authorities have tried to legislate the problem, creating bodies like the Forum Kerukunan Umat Beragama-an inter-religious body tasked with promoting tolerance. The forum also issues recommendations on one of the country's more frequent religious controversies – community requests to build places of worship.

Yet authorities are lax in other key areas, he says.

In August, a court sentenced assailants in the February attack on Ahmadis to up to six months in prison – far too lenient for a crime of such severity, rights groups said at the time. In a move that further outraged critics, an Ahmadi man who had been injured by a machete in the attack was himself sentenced to six months in prison after the court ruled he had disobeyed a police officer. Rights groups said the man had been trying to protect himself and others during the attack.

"It's irrational," Fata says. "People died. It's totally clear the perpetrators were directly involved and had bad intentions. But the government has no clear standpoint in this case."

In light of the continued attacks, Minority Rights Group International (MRG) is concerned that religious minorities in Indonesia will continue to be victims of discrimination if the government doesn't take a stronger stand, and calls on the Indonesian authorities to urgently address the rising levels of intolerance.

Carl Söderbergh, MRG's Director of Policy and Communications, says authorities must ensure the courts are equipped to prosecute offenders to the full extent of the law.

"Rising intolerance in Indonesia represents a serious threat to religious minorities," Söderbergh says. "The government must ensure that all religious groups are allowed to worship freely, without the threat of intimidation or violence. Courts must uphold the law, and ensure that perpetrators of violence receive appropriate sentences for their crimes."