WASHINGTON (BP) — The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has asked President Obama to address Indonesia’s growing struggle with religious intolerance when he visits the nation for the East Asia Summit Nov. 19.
“We believe your administration is uniquely positioned to address ongoing religious freedom problems in Indonesia,” USCIRF chairman Leonard Leo wrote in a letter to Obama.
Strong political forces, terrorist networks and extremist groups continue to threaten Indonesia’s democratic trajectory, causing ongoing religious freedom and human rights violations, Leo said.
“The administration should see religious freedom as an interest intertwined deeply with U.S. security, economic and political interests in Indonesia and as a critical component of better U.S.-Indonesia relations,” Leo wrote Nov. 14. “A creative and sustained diplomacy that protects and advances religious freedom can positively affect a whole range of issues, from the rule of law to the rights of women, from the protection of religious minorities from societal violence to the development of social capital that ensures economic growth.
“U.S. policy and programs should reflect this reality and focus on bolstering Indonesia’s ability to address past religious freedom problems and face new ones.”
USCIRF expressed concern over a rise in societal violence by extremist groups seeking to enforce one version of religious orthodoxy.
“Too often the police and local government officials tolerate or aid this violence and courts do not sufficiently punish perpetrators,” Leo wrote to Obama.
According to Compass Direct News in October, the Yasmin Church in Bogor, a suburb of Jakarta, remained sealed by the city mayor despite a Supreme Court order against his action and recommendation by the ombudsman to give the church back to the congregation.
“Higher authorities have taken no action against the erring mayor,” a church member said, adding that Indonesia’s largest Islamic party, the Prosperous Justice Party, known as the PKS, supported the mayor in the 2008 election. The PKS, which calls for a central role for Islam in public life, is seen as supporting some extremist groups, Compass said.
In another case, a man who blew himself up and wounded more than 20 members of the Bethel Full Gospel Church in September apparently believed it was his religious duty to kill “the enemies of Islam,” Compass reported.
A member of a violent extremist group and eight others were convicted in the clubbing last year of a pastor and the stabbing of a church elder of the Batak Christian Protestant Church in West Java. But Christians and human rights activists condemned the light sentences of only five to seven months, Compass said.
In its International Religious Freedom Report last fall, the U.S. Department of State cited “a number of reports of societal abuses or discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief or practice” in Indonesia.
“Some hardline Muslim groups used violence and intimidation to close at least 28 churches,” the State Department said. “Some of the churches remained closed. Only a few perpetrators of these and past abuses have been prosecuted.”
Indonesia’s criminal code makes spreading hatred, heresy and blasphemy punishable by up to five years in prison, the report said, but the few cases in which it has been enforced “have almost always involved blasphemy and heresy against Islam.”
Sharia law plays a large role in Indonesia, with many local governments following sharia as the inspiration for their ordinances, the State Department said.
“We understand that the influence of extremist groups far exceeds their size or electoral appeal and have applauded President Yudhoyono’s public defense of religious tolerance,” Leo wrote. “Nevertheless, religious leaders and civil society representatives have expressed to us their lack of confidence in the Indonesian government’s ability to address fully ongoing issues of police impunity or societal violence.
“In some parts of Indonesia a culture of impunity exists in which extremist groups operate with little or no consequences, harassing places of worship, extorting protection money from religious minorities and pressuring local officials to detain and restrict allegedly heterodox religious groups,” Leo added. “Such situations are the main source of religious freedom abuses in Indonesia and undermine faith in Indonesian democracy and court system.”
UCIRF urged Obama to speak publicly during and after his visit regarding religious freedom protections as a crucial element in the development of free, prosperous and peaceful societies.
“We believe that the vast majority of Indonesians will warmly receive this message,” Leo wrote. “We also urge the administration to develop with Indonesia a regular human rights dialogue. Such a dialogue would establish a structure through which rule of law and human rights concerns, including religious freedom restrictions and violations, could be discussed.”
Compiled by Baptist Press assistant editor Erin Roach. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).