Indonesian government recognizes Baha'i faith as a religion

(Photo: REUTERS / Sergio Moraes)People from the Baha'i religious community pose for a picture next to a giant painting created by Brazilian artist Siron Franco, as part of the "Five Years Too Many" protest campaign marking the five-year anniversary of the imprisonment of seven Iranian Baha'i leaders, on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro May 5, 2013. The image represents that "Human beings should be free as birds," according to the artist. The Baha'i community in Brazil is protesting against the 2008 arrest of seven leaders of their religion in Iran for espionage, propaganda against the Islamic republic and the establishment of an illegal administration among other things, according to the organizers.

Believers of Baha'i faith and advocates of pluralism in Indonesia see a silver lining with a recent statement of the new religious affairs minister acknowledging it as a religion and not merely a sect.

Newly appointed Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin said Baha'I, which started in the the19th-century and which is among religions protected by the Constitution.

Therefore he said its followers are entitled to the same citizenship rights as other Indonesians devoted to any of the six religions recognized by the country, reported The Jakarta Post.

Indonesia officially recognizes six religions: Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism in its Constitution.

In his Twitter account, Lukman said "Baha'i is a religion, not a sect."

His statement was in response to a letter from Home Minister Gamawan Fauzi, asking the status of Baha'i in the country.

The gesture differs strongly from Lukman's predecessor, Suryadharma Ali. He had recommended that Shia and Ahmadiyah followers, a minority group, convert to Islam following a series of attacks by Muslim groups and accused them of heresy.

"I told [the Home Affairs Ministry] that Baha'i is a religion protected by articles 28E and 29 in the Constitution," The Jakarta Globe quoted Lukman as saying.

Touted as one of the fastest growing religions across the globe, the Baha'i faith is a monotheistic religion underscoring the spiritual unity of mankind. It teaches that there is only one God and one human race.

It has a religious background in Shi'a Islam.

One of the youngest of the world's independent religions, the faith was founded by Bahá'u'lláh, a Persian nobleman from Tehran, in 19th century Persia. It claims more than five million followers across the world.

For nearly four decades, Baha'i was outlawed in Indonesia until former president Abdurrahman Wahid lifted the ban in 2000.

Presently, there are roughly 700 Baha'i believers spread throughout the country: 220 in Banyuwangi, 100 in Jakarta, 100 in Medan, 98 in Surabaya, 980 in Palopo, 50 in Bandung, 30 in Malang and in other regions, said Lukman.

In response to criticism for his stand on the matter, Lukman said it was more important to hold discussions on whether or not the State should be given the authority to acknowledge a religion.

Ismail Hasani of the pluralism watchdog Setara Institute said Lukman's statement "gave hope for the strengthening of religious tolerance."

"His openness raises hopes for a group that has experienced discrimination by the State," The Jakarta Post quoted Ismail as saying.

But the deputy secretary of the Indonesian Ulema Council, Amirsyah Tambunan disagreed with Lukman, saying that Baha'i is a sect and should not be recognized as a religion, reported The Jakarta Globe.

It quoted Amir as saying, "Clearly, I say Baha''i cannot be categorized as religion," noting that religions should be sourced from a revelation, such as the Abrahamic faiths.

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