Wed, 22 Mar 2000

President renews call for diversity

JAKARTA (JP): President Abdurrahman Wahid renewed his call for the nation to accept diversity in religion, ethnicity and cultural background as a heavenly blessing and urged people not to force their will against each other in the name of religion.

Speaking in a 90-minute dialog with the non-Muslim community and leaders of women's organizations, the President said worshipers of any religion deserved equal opportunity to practice their faith, and the Ministry of Religious Affairs should give them equal treatment.

"It is just normal that the Ministry of Religious Affairs is dominated by Muslims. But that does not mean that it eliminates other people's rights," the President said, amid a warm applause from the audience who packed the Pola building, near the Proclamation Statue in Central Jakarta.

The dialog, broadcasted live by state-run channel TVRI, followed the President's promise to hold regular dialogs with society. He regularly holds a meeting with Muslims after Friday prayers.

Muslims make up about 80 percent of Indonesia's population of 210 million, making it the world's largest Muslim country.

Sectarian clashes have rocked the Maluku islands over the past year, leaving more than 2,000 dead.

Abdurrahman pledged that his government would end state intervention in religious affairs, including organizational matters of a religious council, saying religions must be independent from the state.

"Of course not all citizens understand this. It takes time to convince them, because many people still believe that religions must act like an institution," the President said.

During the hearing moderated by acting State Secretary Bondan Gunawan, Catholic priest Mudji Sutrisno questioned the importance of the controversial joint ministerial decree issued in 1969 by the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the Ministry of Home Affairs. It stipulates that the construction of houses of worship requires prior permission from local residents and afterward a government permit.

Abdurrahman said he could understand the objection of non- Muslims to the decree.

"It is not fair if Muslims protest the construction of churches or other places of worship while there are hundreds of thousands of mosques built without any permits," Abdurrahman said.

He said he would not likely revoke the decree in a hasty manner, but promised to promote his belief that the decree needs reviewing for the sake of equality.

"I have been President for five months. To convince ulemas, priests and monks is not easy. It is just as difficult as convincing bureaucrats," the President said while chuckling.

He later told the audience an anecdote describing how severe human rights abuse was during the New Order regime.

"Experts and archeologists from all over the world were frustrated as they failed to identify a mummy in Egypt. But an Indonesian entered the pyramid and after 30 minutes he left it and announced the name and birth date of the mummy.

"When the foreign experts asked about his method to interview the mummy, the Indonesian just replied 'I have worked as a police officer for 20 years'," he said to the laughter of the audience.

The President also touched on other issues like the overstaffed State Secretariat.

Abdurrahman disclosed he received many letters from people who complained about the State Secretariat.

"I am served by 4,000 staff members. The number is so large, but they often do not know where to deliver my letters," he said.

He smiled when Zumrotin K. Susilo, an executive of the Indonesian Consumer Protection Foundation, complained about the government dragging its feet in tracing and punishing corruptors.

"Don't forget mbak that the corruptors are very smart about hiding their wealth ... We know who are the corruptors, but it is not easy to find the evidence." (prb)