Indonesia: Religious Liberty Crumbling

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- appeal to Constitutional Court denied
- Joint Ministerial Decree (SKB) No 1, 1969, reviewed.

A joint ministerial decree issued in Indonesia in 1969 established
guidelines for religious groups wanting to build places of worship.
Religious groups had to apply for a permit, but a local council
could only grant a permit if locals living in the immediate vicinity
of the proposed church, mosque or temple gave their consent. In
practice, this made it difficult for non-Muslims to receive a permit
to construct a place of worship, particularly in strongly Muslim
districts. This in turn created a burgeoning house-fellowship
movement, whereby unregistered fellowships meet for prayer and
worship in homes, offices or shops.

The growth of radical, fundamentalist, political and militant Islam
in Indonesia through the 1990s and especially since October 2001 has
given rise to a campaign of intolerance against apostasy and church
proliferation. Apostasy and Christian expansion were key issues at
the annual national meeting of the Indonesian Ulemas Council (MUI:
Indonesia's most senior body of Islamic clerics), in Jakarta in July
2005. Clerics complained that Christianity was making "worrying
inroads" and that Christian preachers were converting Muslims at "an
alarming rate", while the "phenomenon" of church construction was
"most disturbing". The MUI subsequently issued an 11-point fatwa
that, among other things, describes liberal interpretations of
Islam, secularism and pluralism as being against Islam.

The fatwas and the MUI's relationship with the Anti-Apostasy
Movement Alliance (AGAP) led to a surge in Islamic fundamentalist
and militant activity against Christian ministries and churches. In
September 2005 three Christian women, Rebekka Zakaria, Eti Pangesti
and Ratna Bangun, were imprisoned in West Java after being found
guilty of "Christianisation" of Muslim children (introducing
Christianity to Muslim children) For background see: WEA RLC
"Indonesia: Removing enticements to apostasy" 2 Sept 2005
Islamist clerics decried the women's Sunday School ministry as
"incitement to apostasy". Meanwhile, dozens of fellowships and
churches have been forced to close under threat of violence.


These two situations – the convictions against Rebekka Zakaria, Eti
Pangesti and Ratna Bangun, plus the forced church closures –
actually provided the Indonesian government with watershed
opportunities to address Indonesia's vulnerable and threatened
religious liberty status.

Firstly, the convictions against the three Christian women gave rise
to a legal challenge in the Constitutional Court whereby it was
hoped to demonstrate that the convictions against Rebekka Zakaria,
Eti Pangesti and Ratna Bangun were contrary to Indonesian's
Constitution (Article 28E) and Human Rights Law No. 39/1999 (Article

Secondly, the dramatic and violent wave of intimidation unleashed on
churches resulting in the closure of many, led to calls for Joint
Ministerial Decree (SKB) No 1, 1969, to be reviewed, preferably

These were watershed opportunities through which the Indonesian
government could have made a historic stand for true religious
liberty and progress from a position of Islamic protectionism with
concessions to a position of endorsing fundamental human rights and
the principle of liberty. Unfortunately the government is failing,
coming down on the dark side of repressive protectionist Islam
rather than on the side of the free modern world. This will be
retrogressive for Indonesia and will take persecution of the Church
to a new level.


In February 2006, Indonesia's Constitutional Court rejected a legal
challenge to the charges against Rebekka Zakaria, Eti Pangesti and
Ratna Bangun, ruling instead that they will remain in prison and
serve their sentences. A panel of nine Constitutional Court judges
deemed that the plaintiff, Rev. Ruyandi Hutasoit, had no right to
appeal for a legal review, and that the Child Protection Law, which
rules that people found guilty of persuading children to convert to
another religion are subject to five years in jail and/or a Rp 100
million (around US$11,000) fine, is not in conflict with the
Constitution which guarantees freedom of religion.


The review of Joint Ministerial Decree (SKB) No 1, 1969, is
complete. The government rejected appeals to scrap the decree, and
instead came up with a joint regulation between the Religious
Affairs Minister and the Home Affairs Minister on construction of
houses of worship that has won the support of the Indonesian Ulemas

AKI reports: "The revised version maintains the basic requirement of
the original decree, but defines specific prerequisites. It mandates
the establishment of the Communication Forum for Religious Harmony
(FKUB), consisting of representatives of all religious faiths, to
review requests for permits to build places of worship and then
provide recommendations to the local government.

"The minimum number of congregation members for a proposed house of
worship is set at 100, and the plan should be approved by at least
70 local residents of other faiths." (Link 1)

Asia News explains that permits will be issued by local government
upon consultation with the Communication Forums for Religious
Harmony and the local branch of the Religious Affairs Ministry. The
forum will vet applications and advise local authorities on granting
permits. (Link 2)

All groups currently meeting without permits in homes, offices or
shops, must seek a permit, although the requirements that a
fellowship must have 100 members and 70 approvals from non-Christian
locals, will be beyond the reach of many.

The revised decree has been submitted to President Susilo Bambang
Yudhoyono and only awaits his approval to become law.


According to AKI, Theophilus Bela, the secretary-general of the
Indonesian Committee on Religion and Peace (ICRP), urged the
government to revoke the joint ministerial decree because, he said,
it was responsible for attacks against churches. "'The joint
ministerial decree is against the Pancasila state ideology and 1945
Constitution, as well as human rights. It isn't just but instead has
the potential to tear apart religious harmony and limit people from
worshiping,' he said." (Link 1)

But the Religious Affairs Minister and the Home Affairs Minister,
have, like the Constitutional Court judges, failed to uphold the
principle that religious liberty (as defined in Article 18 of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights) is a fundamental human right.
Rather, Indonesian policy appears to be that Islam will be
protected, Islamists will be appeased, and the right to worship will
be reduced to a concession subject to the whim of locals who are
increasingly under the intimidating influence of intolerant,
pro-Sharia Islamist preachers and militants.

Elizabeth Kendal
[email protected]


1) Christian minority wary of rules to set up places of worship.
Jakarta, 20 Feb 2006. (AKI/Jakarta Post)

2) Changing rules for building churches (Overview) 8 March 2006

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