Indonesian religious aides 'drafting law' to shield minorities

(Photo: REUTERS / Beawiharta)Indonesia's President Joko Widodo gestures next to his wife Iriana, as Vice President Jusuf Kalla (2nd R) and his wife Mufidah look on before posing for photographers with newly appointed cabinet ministers, after an inauguration ceremony at the presidential palace in Jakarta October 27, 2014. Indonesia's new president on Sunday named professional technocrats to lead the top economic ministries and implement much-needed reforms that address costly fuel subsidies, cooling investment and creaky infrastructure in Southeast Asia's biggest economy.

The government of newly-elected Indonesian President Joko Widodo says it has begun the groundwork for ensuring protection of minorities in the country.

Indonesia's religious affairs ministry announced it intends to draft new legislation to further ensure religious freedom, a nagging problem over recent years.

Minority groups remain cautious about the ministry's plans, although some expressed optimism over the proposed legislation in the country with the world's biggest population of Muslims.

Speaking to local media, religious affairs minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin said his office would draft a new measure to ensure religious freedom in the country.

The minister explained that the bill would tackle issues badgering minority groups such as the closure of churches, as well as attacks on mosques of followers of the Shia and Ahmadiyya traditions.

The Muslim majority in Indonesia adheres generally to the Shiite tradition, while Shia and Ahmadiyya are minorities along with Christians and other religious groups.

An official of the Indonesian Ahlulbait, an umbrella for Shia followers, told the latest government initiative is a "breakthrough."

"Seeing the minister's spirit, I feel optimistic. I'm really sure that the regulation will protect religious groups," said Ahmad Hidayat, secretary general of the group.

Despite his initial optimism with the measure, Hidayat said political dynamics could play a huge factor in the outcome of the law.

"The political situation often prevents policies taken by the national government from being implemented by the local governments," he explained.

While national laws protect minority communities, local governments in charge of implementing it have so far been inconsistent.

Like Hidayat, a leader of a Ahmadiyya community in West Java welcomed the development, saying it hopes the action of the religious ministry can change the way they practice their belief.

"We give a thumbs-up to the minister for planning the bill," said Deden Sujana, an Ahmadiyya community leader in West Java. "We hope the regulation will let us pray solemnly without any disturbance in the future."

Father Antonius Benny Susetyo, from the Indonesian [Catholic] Bishops' Conference, pointed out that the religious ministry should keep in mind the country's Constitution in crafting the law.

"The minister must be transparent," Susetyo said. "Read the content first, and then share it with the public."

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