There is a growing number of incidents of alleged religious persecution usually perpetrated by militant members of Indonesia’s Sunni majority – often with the tacit and sometimes open support of the authorities. Yet on the other side of the world, amid the lustre of a $25,000-a-head reception at The Pierre hotel in New York, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will receive an award Thursday for his defence of religious freedom from the Appeal of Conscience Foundation – a Jewish organisation promoting interfaith harmony.
It is a decision that has baffled many of Indonesia’s embattled minorities. In light of the rise of religious persecution many minority groups have protested the award and called on the president to decline the honour. “We don’t have a problem with the award itself. If they want to give him an award that’s up to them. Congratulations to you Mr President,” said Iqbar with a dry laugh. “But we don’t see why he deserves it. Under [former president] Suharto there were other problems, but there weren’t any problems with militants. Under Yudhoyono there has been more and more intolerance.”
Since his election in 2005, Yudhoyono has signed off on a number of controversial new laws, including the 2008 Anti-Ahmadiyah Decree, which bans the Ahmadiyah from “propagating” their faith. The vagueness of the term “propagation” has in effect allowed regional governments to interpret the law as an outright ban on the practice of Ahmadiyah.
Just three months after Obama made his comments (November 2010), 1,500 hardline Sunnis attacked members of the Ahmadiyah community in Cikeusik, a village in West Java. Armed with clubs and machetes, the mob hacked and bludgeoned three men to death and wounded many more. It’s not only the Ahmadiya who face persecution. Reports of harassment and intimidation against Christians are commonplace and forced church closures are frequently in the news. Shia Muslims also say they face discrimination. A Shia cleric was sentenced to two years in prison for promoting what was said to be a heretical interpretation of Islam in East Java last July. The school he founded was burnt to the ground. According to the Jakarta-based Setara Institute, which monitors religious freedom in Indonesia, there were 264 cases of violent attacks on religious minorities in 2012, up from 216 in 2010.
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