Is Indonesia still a model of religious tolerance?

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono received a religious tolerance award last night, infuriating critics who say he has failed to stop a wave of attacks on religious minorities.

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    President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia (l.) is presented with a World Statesman Award by Appeal of Conscience Foundation President Rabbi Arthur Schneier, Thursday, in New York.
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Despite a rise in religiously-motivated violence at home, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono addressed a wealthy crowd at New York’s Pierre hotel on Thursday night and accepted an award from an interfaith group for his work promoting religious freedom and human rights.

The award came from the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, an interfaith group founded by Rabbi Arthur Schneier that aims to “promote peace, tolerance, and ethnic conflict resolution.” Past recipients include British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who handed the award to Yudhoyono on Thursday.

But human rights groups say the award sends the wrong message: That all is well in Indonesia, a majority-Muslim democracy long viewed as a model of religious tolerance that has faltered of late.

In recent years Islamic hardliners belonging to Indonesia’s Sunni majority have attacked Christians, Shiites, and the Ahmadiyah, a Muslim sect persecuted globally for beliefs that diverge from the mainstream.

More than 430 churches have been attacked since 2004, and at least 30 Ahmadiyah mosques have been shuttered since 2008. The Jakarta-based Setara Institute, which monitors religious freedom in Indonesia, reported 264 cases of attacks on religious minorities in 2012, up from 216 in 2010. 

Human rights groups say the authorities have stood idle when such violence occurs, sometimes even offering tacit or open support of laws that curb the freedom to worship.

In 2006 the government passed a ministerial decree that has prevented Christian groups from opening churches. An anti-Ahmadiyah decree passed in 2008 prohibits the Ahmadiyah from propagating their faith on pain of a five-year prison term. Local governments have interpreted the decree as a ban on the Ahmadiyah’s activities.

And while Indonesia’s constitution enshrines the right to freedom of religion, the government only legally recognizes six faiths – Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Confucianism.

The Appeal of Conscience Foundation has not addressed the protests, but at the dinner on Thursday Schneier acknowledged that Yudhoyono’s work was “not complete.” The president, too, acknowledged that Indonesia still has problems with intolerance, but said his country served as a strong voice for moderation.

“Indonesia is an example to the world that democracy, Islam, and modernity can live in positive symbiosis,” Yudhoyono said, according to a tweet from Indonesian Ambassador to the US, Dino Patti Djalal. 

That may be one reason global leaders continue to hail Indonesia.

“It is important for Indonesians to be successful because the world is watching,” Suzan Johnson Cook, the State Department’s Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, told the English-language Jakarta Globe last week.

Her comments came just as the US State Department released its annual report on religious freedom, which expresses concern about rising religious intolerance in Indonesia. 

Yudhoyono’s critics admit that Indonesia has come a long way in the 15 years since autocrat Suharto gave up power. Since becoming president in 2004 Yudhoyono has overseen the signing of a peace agreement that ended a 30-year separatist battle in Aceh and the country has achieved record economic growth and political stability.

But the president has also laid down the “legal infrastructure” that allows groups to discriminate against minorities, and much of that discrimination and violence has gone unpunished, said Andreas Harsono, an Indonesian researcher for Human Rights Watch, which released a report in February that blamed the Indonesian government for failing to protect the country’s religious minorities from growing religious intolerance and violence.

Mr. Harsono says the award itself is not what’s important, so much as the sentiment. 

“It might create the impression that everything is okay in Indonesia, and that will be used by the ministry of religion and militant organizations to justify violence against minorities.”

Other prominent religious leaders say the award presents an opportunity for minority groups to shine a light on the violence and remind the central government that it has an important role to play in protecting religious minorities.

Like the Shiites, the Ahmadiyah have seen their communities attacked and some members bludgeoned to death. One congregation in West Java has refused to leave its mosque since April, when the governor there ordered the police to seal it.

“Name a place in Indonesia where the Ahmadiyah don’t have problems,” says Firdaus Mubarik, an Ahmadiyah spokesman. “As long as we have we have these discriminatory regulations in place, life will be difficult for us.”

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