Denial and blame the messenger. That is the approach of the government of Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to rising religious intolerance and violence against religious minorities. Last week, Yudhoyono's spokesman Julian Adrian Pasha criticised a new Human Rights Watch report documenting  that problem as "provocative" and lacking objectivity. Pasha dismissed the concerns as "naïve" and insisted that incidents of intolerance and violence by militant Islamist thugs against Indonesia's religious minorities were merely expressions of "friction between groups".



Those comments by Pasha – who admitted he had not read our report in any detail – are disturbing, but unsurprising,  given the Indonesian government's glaring failure to adequately respond to how Indonesia's  religious minorities, including several Protestant groups, Shia Muslims, and the Ahmadiyah,  are targets of increasing intimidation, threats and, too often, violence. Just ask the Ahmadiyah community in Cikeusik, Banten province, in western Java.



On February 6, 2011 a group of some 1,500 Islamist militants attacked 21 members of Cikeusik's Ahmadiyah community who were holding a prayer meeting in a private home. The militants bludgeoned to death three Ahmadiyah men and seriously injured five others. A court sentenced 12 of the perpetrators to token prison sentences of three to six months. Adding insult to injury, the court also sentenced an Ahmadiyah man to a six-month prison term for merely attempting to defend himself. Police have yet to publicly release the results of their internal investigation into the attack.



The price of that government failure to protect the victims of these attacks and bring their perpetrators to justice? Groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front, the FPI, have become emboldened – and increasingly more violent – in their tactics of mobilising masses of 'protesters' to swarm minority houses of worship and harass, intimidate or physically attack their congregants. Those gangs justify their abuses as efforts to defend the Muslim community against Christian proselytisation and rid the country of 'infidels' and 'blasphemers'.



Those have not been empty threats. The Jakarta-based Setara Institute, which monitors religious freedom in Indonesia, has compiled statistics that indicate cases of violent attacks on religious minorities rose to 264 incidents in 2012 from 216 such incidents in 2010. KontraS, a leading non-governmental human rights organisation, documented a total of 18 incidents of intimidation, discrimination and violence against religious minorities– including an arson attack on a Makassar church – in the first six weeks of 2013 alone.



The Shia Muslim community in Sampang regency in East Java knows firsthand both the depredation of violent extremists and official apathy in confronting them. On August 20, 2012, hundreds of Sunni militants attacked the community, torching some 50 homes, killing one man and seriously injuring another. The local police, warned ahead of time of the impending violence, stood by at the scene of the attack and declined to intervene. Such government indifference to the plight of religious minorities targeted by groups like the FPI or intolerant neighbours is a growing concern.



In several incidents documented by Human Rights Watch, local officials and security forces facilitated harassment and intimidation of religious minorities, in some cases even blaming the victims for the violent attacks. Officials have made blatantly discriminatory statements, refused to issue building permits for houses of worship even when all relevant regulations were complied with, and pressured minority congregations to relocate. In two cases, local officials have refused to implement Supreme Court decisions granting minority groups the right to build houses of worship.



Official responsibility for the state failure to adequately confront rising extremism goes to the very top of Indonesia's government. Yudhoyono's response to rising incidents of religious intolerance and related violence has been empty rhetoric rather than decisive action in support of besieged religious minorities and rule-of-law. Even worse, he has turned a blind eye to the members of his government who have explicitly encouraged abuses, including religious affairs minister Suryadharma Ali.



Ali's hostile comments  about the Shi and the Ahmadiyah have included a speech he made at a March 2011 political convention exhorting the government "to ban the Ahmadiyah" and comments in  September 2012 suggesting mass conversion of Shia to Sunni Islam as the solution to anti-Shia sentiment and violence.



What is needed is swift and decisive action by Yudhoyono, beginning with a clear message to police and prosecutors that alleged perpetrators of violence against religious minorities should be investigated and appropriately prosecuted. A zero tolerance policy should be put into effect immediately. The president should also make clear that all government officials, including members of his own cabinet, who make discriminatory comments or condone or encourage harassment of religious minorities, will face immediate consequences, including dismissal.



The clock is ticking. For each day that President Yudhoyono fails to act against the rising trend of religious intolerance and violence, the list of victims and grievances grows ever longer and Indonesia's reputation as a country that balances religious diversity and tolerance comes increasingly into question.