Sun, 01 Oct 2000

People seek respect for religious rights

After three decades when discussion of religion was virtually silenced, Indonesians are coming forward about their beliefs. The Jakarta Post's Rikza Abdullah and Ida Indawati Khouw focus on the growing exploration of religious rights. Related stories on Page 6.

JAKARTA (JP): Confucians Budi Wijaya and Lanny Guito spent a year in a legal battle to win official approval of their marriage.

The problem for the couple from Surabaya was their religion was not recognized by the state.

Gumirat Barna and Susilawati, who are believers in mysticism, also were caught up in a long, arduous legal process to obtain a marriage license from the East Jakarta office for civil affairs, which previously refused to process their application.

Both couples succeeded but, as the country embarks on reform and democratization, their experiences underline that some civil rights, particularly concerning religion, are still not fully respected.

The secretary-general of the Indonesian Council for Confucianism, Budi Santoso Tanuwibowo, said it was time for the religion to be recognized in the country along with Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism and Buddhism.

He said that although Presidential Decree No. 14/1967, which banned the propagation of Chinese cultural forms, including Confucianism, had been revoked, local bureaucrats argued there was a lack of guidelines to put Confucianism on official documents for civil affairs.

Director for the development of Islamic higher education at the Ministry of Religious Affairs Komaruddin Hidayat told the Post last week that democratization encouraged followers of different religions and beliefs to demand respect of their religious and cultural rights.

"The government, including its Ministry of Religious Affairs, must therefore try to accommodate demands for equality in treatment for religious rights," said Komaruddin, who is also chairman of the socioreligious Paramadina Foundation.

He added that in Indonesia, where legal, economic and political structures were not well established, religious issues could be easily used by the authorities to strengthen their power and by the people to rebel against the government.

Religious beliefs and cultural and ethnic values influenced each other, he said, so that followers of religions expressed themselves differently. The situation required people to improve their tolerance of others.

He said the government in the reform era could either accommodate demands for equal treatment for all the followers of different religions, or else disband the Ministry of Religious Affairs and let the people deal with their own religious interests.

The government's obligation would be to ensure that no followers of a particular religion were oppressed by others.

What if President Abdurrahman Wahid shut down the ministry?

"He will face difficulty in disbanding the ministry because if he did, he would find opposition from sympathizers of his own organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, who think that Muslims have historically played an important role in the struggle for independence and the development of the country."

He added the ministry was currently in a status quo but it would have to adapt to future demands.

The government should create conditions where followers of different religions could practice their own beliefs freely, but it must also issue regulations prohibiting religious followers from impinging on the interests of others through slander, terrorism or other damaging acts.

"If the government fails to create such conditions, I'm afraid we will be involved in anarchy."

Komaruddin said the era of information technology was interweaving religious beliefs and different cultural interests.

He advised religious followers in the country to prepare themselves intellectually to enter a "free market" where no one would have the authority to issue a "license" on the legitimacy of issues on religion or beliefs. As religious experiences were intensely personal, education and comparative views would play an important role in making religious followers inclusive and tolerant.

When conditions were conducive for religious tolerance, any party may introduce new views or beliefs but their development, without any interference from the government, would be determined by the critical response of the people. Some of them would inevitably die out if they were not accepted by the public.

Religious tolerance could develop if believers were secure, both intellectually and economically. For example, graduates of the State Institutes for Islamic Studies (IAIN) and pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) who also underwent other schooling, such as leading Muslim figure Nurcholish Madjid, were likely to be more tolerant of other religious beliefs than graduates from other educational institutions.

"Evidence shows that pesantren graduates are more liberal than their fellow Muslims who have never studied in pesantren," he said.

Komarrudin, himself a graduate of an Islamic boarding school and Middle East University in Ankara, Turkey, said his ministry, in trying to promote tolerance among Muslim students, was formulating the integration of Islamic studies with world sciences to illustrated there was no conflict between religion and modernity.