United States President Barack Obama praised “the spirit of religious tolerance that is enshrined in Indonesia’s constitution, and that remains one of its defining and inspiring characteristics” during a visit to Jakarta in November 2010.

Tell that to the Ahmadiyah community in Cikeusik, Banten. Barely three months after Obama sang the praises of Indonesia’s religious harmony, 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 on Feb. 6, 2011. The militants bludgeoned three Ahmadis to death and injured five others.

A court sentenced 12 of the perpetrators to 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 attempting to defend himself. 

Police have yet to publicly release results of their internal investigation into the attack.

As a new report from Human Rights Watch describes, religious intolerance and acts of violence targeting religious minorities are increasingly frequent in Indonesia. The new study documents how religious minorities, including several Protestant groups, Shia Muslims and Ahmadiyah, are targets of increasingly routine intimidation, threats and violence. 

The harassment and intimidation has included disrupting the religious observances of minority faiths with protests amplified by high-volume loudspeakers and the dumping of animal carcasses, feces and rotten eggs on the doorsteps of houses of worship.

Adding to the fear stalking religious minorities is the government’s failure to protect the victims of these attacks and bring their perpetrators to justice. 

Groups such as the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) have become emboldened — and increasingly more violent — in their tactics of mobilizing 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 proselytization and rid the country of “infidels” and “blasphemers”.

Those have not been empty threats. Setara Institute, which monitors religious freedom in Indonesia, has compiled statistics which indicate cases of violent attacks on religious minorities rose to 264 incidents in 2012 from 216 in 2010. Kontras, Indonesia’s leading nongovernmental human rights organization, documented a total of 18 incidents of religious-motivated intimidation, discrimination and violence — including an arson attack on a Makassar church — in the first six weeks of 2013 alone.

The Shia Muslim community in Sampang regency, East Java, knows firsthand both the depredation of violent extremists and official apathy in confronting them. On Aug. 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 neighbors is a growing concern. 

In several incidents we investigated, 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 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.

Indonesian government institutions in some instances have exacerbated religious intolerance, in direct contravention of the guarantee in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Indonesia ratified in 2005, that “persons belonging to [...] minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practice their own religion”.

The Religious Affairs Ministry, the Coordinating Board for Monitoring Mystical Beliefs in Society (Bakor Pakem) under the Attorney General’s Office, and the semi-official Indonesian Ulema Council, have eroded religious freedom by issuing decrees and fatwas (edicts) against members of religious minorities and using their position of authority to press for the prosecution of “blasphemers”.

Official responsibility for the state failure to adequately confront rising extremism goes to the very top of Indonesia’s government. President Susilo Bambang 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 the rule of law.

Even worse, Yudhoyono has turned a blind eye to members of his government who have explicitly encouraged abuses, including Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali, whose hostile comments about the Shia and the Ahmadiyah have included a speech he made at a March 2011 political convention exhorting the government to “ban Ahmadiyah”and comments in September 2012 suggesting mass conversion of Shia to Sunni Islam as the solution to anti-Shia sentiment and violence.

The police appear to have taken their cue from those poor examples. Police have on some occasions sided with Islamist militants at the expense of the rights of religious minorities, ostensibly to avoid violence. Rather than investigating and arresting groups and individuals implicated in threats or physical attacks on religious minorities, police have sometimes opted to persuade the victims of such attacks to leave the area or close their houses of worship.

Shamefully, police have in some cases colluded with the attackers for religious, economic, or political reasons. In other instances, they choose a course of inaction due to a lack of clear directives from above or concerns that militants outnumber the police. 

Across the board, the absence of effective police action reflects an institutional failure to hold perpetrators of violent crimes to account and uphold the law.

The lack of leadership by President Yudhoyono to stand down religious militants and defend religious freedom and tolerance is serving only to ensure that religious minorities continue to face harassment, intimidation and physical attack by vigilante thugs espousing a creed at violent odds with Indonesian law.

While the targets today are mostly members of relatively small, politically weak minority groups, the situation could well multiply if the violence and harassment are not nipped in the bud. Intolerance has a way of spreading, and a few years down the road one could see competing groups within the Sunni majority in Indonesia trying to impose their will on co-religionists through intimidation and violence rather than persuasion.

What is needed is swift and decisive action by President Yudhoyono beginning with a clear message to police and prosecutors that alleged perpetrators of violence against religious minorities must face investigation and prosecution. Such “zero tolerance” for violence should be put into effect immediately.

Human Rights Watch believes 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, up to and including dismissal.

We are also urging President Yudhoyono to convene a high-level working group composed of people of stature, known for their independence, to map out a national strategy for safeguarding religious freedom and curbing acts of violence in the name of religion. The working group mandate should include reviewing laws, regulations and decrees that have facilitated discrimination and violation of religious minority rights.

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. Without a sustained and decisive government defense of religious freedom, the “spirit of religious tolerance” praised by President Obama becomes ever more distant.