New Indonesian president must face religious issues, academics say

(Photo: REUTERS / Beawiharta)Indonesia's new President Joko Widodo (C) with his wife Iriana Joko Widodo wave next to former president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono at the presidential palace in Jakarta, October 20, 2014.Widodo was sworn in as Indonesia's seventh president at a ceremony in parliament on Monday, becoming the country's first leader not from the political or military elite.

New Indonesian president Joko Widodo should handle more deftly the religious diversity in the country as espoused by its constitution, say several experts looking into the political dynamics in Jakarta.

At a press conference on Monday, a representative from the University of Gadjah Mada emphasized the need for Widodo to tackle the issue on improving the country's diversity of religions there.

"Three critical problems, namely the issue of houses of worship and religious blasphemy allegations, discriminatory impacts of definitions of a religion and discriminative regional bylaws, need to be immediately resolved," said Mohammad Iqbal Ahnaf, coordinator of the public education division of the university's Center for Religious and Cross-Cultural Studies.

Iqbal said the three issues are part of a document drafted by the center which it will submit to the Widodo administration, The Jakarta Post reported.

Widodo was sworn in on Monday after winning the recent elections there in a close race.

The new government ought to show its political will to address the problems faced by Ahmadiyah refugees, who have been neglected of their basic rights, said Iqbal.

Widodo must not waste time to begin reconciliation talks among the minorities there, who are being forced to convert to other faiths just to be able to return to their hometowns.

"Of the three issues, the problem affecting Ahmadiyah refugees in West Nusa Tenggara and Sidoarjo, East Java, is the most urgent for us to resolve," the expert said.

"The success of the new government in handling the problems of Ahmadiyah refugees will become a symbol of its success in tackling problems related to religious diversity in Indonesia."

CRCS-UGM head Samsul Maarif, who also spoke, said Widodo should also call for a review of the definition of religion as conceptualized in several Indonesian laws such as regulation on religious blasphemy and population control.

"The current definition of religion has led to discrimination toward traditional and local faith followers whereas based on our scientific study, theoretically, they can also be defined as a religion," said Samsul.

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