Indonesia ignores Islamists' attacks: Human Rights Watch

(Photo: Reuters / Damir Sagolj)Acanese Protestants attend a Christmas mass in their Banda Aceh church Dec.8, 2012. Although it is more complicated to build a new Christian church in the predominantly Muslim province, Rev. Amrin Sihotang of HKBP Protestant church in Aceh said his community has no problems with strict Islamic laws as long "as we follow the rules". Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim nation. Nowwhere is the faith more strictly interpreted than in Aceh, sometimes dubbed the "verandah of Mecca" because it was one of the first parts of the archipelago to turn to Islam. Aceh is Indonesia's only province to have implemented sharia or Islamic laws.

The Indonesian government is failing to protect the country's minorities from growing religious intolerance and violence in the country that has the world's biggest Muslim population, Human Rights Watch says in a new report.

The report, "In Religion's Name: Abuses against Religious Minorities in Indonesia," documents the government's failure to take on militant groups whose thuggish harassment and assaults on houses of worship and on those in religious minorities has become increasingly aggressive.

Those targeted include Ahmadiyahs, Christians, and Shia Muslims. Indonesian monitoring groups have noted a steady increase in such attacks, one group finding 264 violent incidents over the past year.

"The Indonesian government's failure to take decisive action to protect religious minorities from threats and violence is undermining its claims to being a rights-respecting democracy," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

"National leadership is essential. Yudhoyono needs to insist that national laws be enforced, announce that every violent attack will be prosecuted, and map out a comprehensive strategy to combat rising religious intolerance."

New York-based HR Watch said on Thursday that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono should respond much more decisively and adopt a "zero tolerance" policy for attacks on religious minority communities.

"Violence against religious minorities will only get worse so long as the Indonesian government encourages or ignores attacks by Islamist militants," said HRW deputy Asia Director Phelim Kine.

"Indonesia's leaders need to demonstrate real leadership and denounce the violence, revise discriminatory laws, and ensure those responsible for abuses are punished."

Although most discrimination is suffered by non-Muslim groups in Indonesia, there have been protests in Papua and Christian-majority areas such as Kupang in East Nusa Tenggara halting the construction of mosques as recently as 2011.

On Feb. 14 United Nations independent experts on freedom of association, expression, and religion have warned that Indonesia's proposed Mass Organizations law threatens rights to freedom of association and religion.

The U.N. group issued its warning about the Mass Organizations Bill due for vote later this week and urged Indonesia lawmakers to amend the proposed law to bring it in line with international human rights norms and standards.

The Bill on Mass Organizations compels those founding associations not to be in contradiction with Pancasila - the official State philosophy in Indonesia that consecrates the belief "in the One and Only God."

Indonesia's 2010 census figures show that 88 percent of the 238 million people are Muslims, about 6.2 percent or 22 million are Chrisitans, 1.8 percent are Hindus and 0.6 percent or 1.5 million are Buddhists. Non-believers or atheists are not recorded in the census data. 

HRW said that in 2011 incidents of religious violence got more deadly and more frequent, as Islamist militants mobilized mobs to attack religious minorities with impunity; short prison terms for a handful of offenders did nothing to dissuade mob violence.

It said that over the past 13 years Indonesia has made great strides in becoming a stable, democratic country with a strong civil society and independent media. However, serious human rights concerns remain.

While senior officials pay lip service to protecting human rights, they seem unwilling to take the steps necessary to ensure compliance by the security forces with international human rights and punishment for those responsible for abuses.

In 2011 religious violence surged, particularly against Christians and Ahmadiyah, a group that considers itself Muslim but that some Muslims consider heretical. Violence continued to rack Papua and West Papua provinces, with few effective police investigations to hold perpetrators accountable.

The government failed to overturn several decrees that discriminate between religions and foster intolerance.

According to the Jakarta-based Setara Institute, which monitors religious freedom in Indonesia, there were 216 cases of violent attacks on religious minorities in 2010, 244 cases in 2011, and 264 cases in 2012.

The Wahid Institute, another Jakarta-based monitoring group, documented 92 violations of religious freedom and 184 incidents of religious intolerance in 2011, up from 64 violations and 134 incidents of intolerance in 2010.

In February more than 1,500 Islamist militants attacked a house in Cikeusik, western Java, killing three and seriously wounding five Ahmadiyah men. The incident was caught on film.

Public outrage generated around the case prompted the authorities to act quickly in investigating the attack.

In July the Serang district court sentenced 12 men to between three and six months imprisonment for disturbing public order, incitement, and assault, but not for manslaughter.

Human Rights Watch is an international organization with staff in more than 40 countries. It has offices in Amsterdam, Beirut, Berlin, Brussels, Chicago, Geneva, Goma, Johannesburg, London, Los Angeles, Moscow, Nairobi, New York, Paris, San Francisco, Tokyo, Toronto, Tunis, Washington DC, and Zurich.

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