Indonesia’s Threatened Legacy

Indonesia’s founding fathers made religious equality a key principle of national identity, giving privilege to no individual faith.  Their legacy sees this, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, regularly proclaimed a beacon of tolerance in a turbulent age.  But as long as loud-mouthed chauvinists, on the streets, and in regional administrations, are given free rein by the national authorities, that legacy finds itself under critical threat.

Last weekend Christians from the congregation of Taman Yasmin Indonesian Christian Church in Bogor, close to Jakarta, held a prayer vigil in front of the presidential palace in the national capital and called on President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to protect them from the Islamist hardliners who have harassed them in recent years.  What makes the president’s intervention so essential is that this harassment has come not only from the kind of vociferous street thugs who have made their presence felt in many parts of Indonesia in recent years, but also from the Bogor municipal government.

Despite a Supreme Court order in 2010 allowing the church to reopen after its license was revoked two years earlier, the Bogor authorities have ignored the instruction, and have instead failed to protect the congregation from the harassment of hardliners armed with sticks and stones.

Neither Bogor’s government, nor those who would intimidate the local Christians, are representative of Indonesia’s generally tolerant silent majority, but their voices are loud.  That is why Yudhoyono needs to act to reaffirm the principles upon which the country was built, by taking decisive steps to ensure that the Bogor authorities respect the rule of the Supreme Court, and act to protect minorities from thuggery.  Steps should also be taken to revise the planning regulations which tip the balance against those of minority faiths seeking to establish places of worship.

If pockets of intolerant religious chauvinism are allowed to endure while the nation’s rulers stand idly by, Indonesia’s proud legacy of unity in diversity may sadly be consigned to the history books.

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