Religion on ID Cards Blamed for Deaths

JAKARTA ~ Indonesia’s small, plastic identity cards may seem innocuous enough but campaigners who are trying to have the compulsory religion category dropped say they are behind many sectarian killings.

“People have been killed in sectarian conflicts because religion is mentioned on the cards,” said activist Maya Safira, who heads a non-profit group that seeks to embrace Indonesians of different backgrounds.

Safira’s National Integration Movement wants religion removed from the cards because Muslim-majority Indonesia has a history of religious conflict.

“We are concerned about these divisions,” she said at her group’s headquarters in Jakarta, where religious symbols are sprawled across the walls to indicate all are welcome at her organization.

A law passed in 2006 mandated the inclusion of religion on the identity cards, despite objections that forcing people to display their faith was a violation of basic human rights.

The archipelago nation of 17,000 islands also has a number of minority religious beliefs that critics say the law simply fails to capture.

This is because Indonesia officially recognizes only six major faiths – Islam, Catholicism, Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism.

For followers of other faiths, such as animism or local traditional beliefs, nothing is entered on the card because they practice a religion the government does not officially recognize.

While most Indonesians live peacefully together despite religious differences, many do not. That those differences can, and sometimes do, lead to fatal conflict was underscored in March when Islamic militants were jailed for up to 20 years for beheading three Christian teenage schoolgirls in 2005.

That horrific attack, carried out by a gang using a machete, took place in Sulawesi’s religiously divided district of Poso and drew international condemnation, including from the pope.

For Yudanegara, who uses one name, anything that marks religious division brings back awful memories. His brother perished after getting caught up in Muslim-Christian conflict in 1999 on Ambon island in the Malukus.

“About 50 to 60 people from my brother’s office were burned to death in a locked room,” he said. “My brother was a Hindu. He had nothing to do with the two conflicting faiths there, but he became a victim nonetheless.”

Religious violence in the chain has killed more than 5,000 people and displaced thousands more.

Violence is not the only problem for critics who say the cards can also encourage discrimination in everyday life.

Permadi, a member of parliament, follows a traditional faith generically termed Aliran Kepercayaan. The religion box on his identity card should have been left blank, but officials filled it in for him – with Islam.

Even so, he says, the authorities have refused to record his daughter’s marriage or to issue a certificate as legal evidence of her union.

“They refused to record the marriage of my daughter simply because her father adheres to an indigenous belief,” he said. “I am living proof of the discrimination against believers in minority faiths.”

Suma Mihardja of LBH Rakyat, a legal aid group, said people who practiced a religion other that the six official faiths were generally unable to obtain vital documents such as marriage, birth, death and residency certificates.

LBH Rakyat, rights activists and other campaigners have urged the government to remove religion from the cards.

Dawam Raharjo, a moderate Muslim who belongs to Muhammadiyah, the large Islamic organization, said the nation would benefit from such a move. “It would reduce religious discrimination and violence throughout the country,” he said.

Some also charge that requiring people to list their faith is an unwarranted invasion of privacy.

Abdurrahman Wahid, a leader of Nahdlatul Ulama, the country’s largest Muslim group, said identity cards were a state matter while religion was personal. The government, he said, should not interfere in such personal matters.

“Islam does not prohibit the removal of religion from identity cards,” he said. “This is an important issue because it could stop more people dying in religious conflicts.”

But there are many who defend the cards against their critics.

Minister of Religion Muhammed Maftuh Basyuni has reportedly said that making it compulsory to list a religious affiliation, rather than being divisive, could encourage harmony between religious groups.

It could also help ensure a person was practicing his religion properly, he said, since it made it harder for to lie about contravening religious principles.

Other defenders of the cards say it is too simplistic to blame them for religious discrimination or bloody violence.

Din Syamsuddin, the chairman of Muhammadiyah, said the causes of religious conflict included social injustice and economic inequality rather than identity cards.

He said only secular countries omitted religion from identity documents, adding: “We do not need to follow what they do.”

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