Sun, 07 Mar 1999

Learning to respect other believers' rights

Hak Asasi Beragama dan Perkawinan Konghucu: Perspektif Sosial, Legal dan Teologi (Basic Right to Religion and Marriage of Confucianists: Social, Legal and Theological Perspectives); PT Gramedia Pustaka Utama, Jakarta, 1998; Budi Wijaya et al; ix + 193

YOGYAKARTA (JP): On Dec. 15, 1995, the Surabaya administration stirred up a national controversy when it refused to register the marriage of a Confucianist couple, Budi and Lanny.

The local agency in charge of registering marriages of non- Muslim people argued that Confucianism was not recognized by the government.

Home Affairs Ministerial Decree No. 477/74054 of 1978 states that the government recognizes only five religions: Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and the two forms of Christianity, Protestantism and Catholicism.

The refusal provoked a lively polemic because the 1945 Constitution guarantees freedom of religion. The controversy revolved around the question of how a ministerial decree could overrule the Constitution on which all other laws are based.

Budi and Lanny filed a law suit in the local State Administrative Court against the government but then lost the legal battle.

The Surabaya government's denial of Budi and Lanny's rights was a glaring violation of the human rights that the Constitution guarantees through Articles 27 and 29.

Moderate Muslim leader Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid charged that the government had "sacrificed the universal principle for the sake of mere administrative trivialities."

Critics charged that the government had abused laws and human values.

Muslim intellectual Nurcholish Madjid is quoted in this book as saying that to talk about human rights, one has to be objective and understand the meaning and purpose of life from a religious perspective.

Without an understanding of religious teachings, one's notion of human rights will be hollow, according to Nurcholish (p.27).

Although Budi and Lanny lost their legal battle, sympathy for them poured in from all quarters: Nurcholish, the National Commission on Human Rights, Association of Indonesian Muslim Intellectuals and Gus Dur -- who chairs the Muslim mass organization Nahdlatul Ulama and the World Conference on Religion and Peace.

Besides, scholars like Suwoto, Moch. Isnaeni, Haryono, Dede Oetomo, Ramlan Surbakti, Soetoyo, Soetandyo, I.B. Soesanto and former Justice Bismar Siregar also lent their support.

The public outcry was eventually heeded by the government and the House of Representatives. The government offered three alternatives to solve the problem.

First, Confucianism would be recognized as a religion. Second, the government would register Confucianist marriages. Third, the government would provide special registration for people who embrace a religion other than the five legally recognized ones.

The court's decision in favor of the government in the Budi and Lanny case made Confucianists really confused. They felt local government officials treated them unfairly. This worry received credence when on Sept. 15, 1996 the Surabaya administration issued a decree, stressing again that Confucianism was not recognized and warning people against using it for whatever purposes.

The authors of this book discuss the various possibilities that cause a misunderstanding about Confucianism, socio-political sentiment behind racial issues and the phobia of communism surrounding Indonesia-China relations.

The book gives perspectives on the understanding of the 1945 Constitution's Article 27 which guarantees every citizen's basic rights and Article 29 which guarantees the citizen's right to practice the religion of choice.

It demonstrates that the Surabaya case shows the need for everyone to respect others' rights to a religion of choice. The Holy Koran (Qs 2:62) states that every religious believer, be they Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Confucianist or whatever will receive divine rewards as long as they follow God's way.

The book underlines the need for respect for human rights without sacrificing universal values. As Christian theologian Th. Sumartana says, there have been too many people falling victim of the Indonesian state's policies and the challenge is how to stop abuses of human rights.

-- Chusnul Murtafiin

The reviewer is a student of the State Institute of Islamic Studies (IAIN) Sunan Kalijaga, Yogyakarta