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Protestant church congregations in Singkil regency in Indonesia’s Aceh province in northern Sumatra are in the market for new video hardware.

But they did not source wide-screen televisions to view 2014 World Cup matches or the candidate debates for Indonesia’s July 9 presidential election.

Instead, the 10 churches wanted closed circuit television cameras (CCTV) to defend against possible arson attacks by violent Islamist militants.

Those church congregations have reason to be afraid during this election season. Pastor Erde Berutu, the minister of one of the Singkil congregations seeking CCTV cameras, told Human Rights Watch that memories of an arson attack on a Protestant church in Aceh’s Gunung Meriah area after the April 2012 local elections made the camera purchases an urgent priority.

Unknown attackers broke into the church in the early hours, doused the church pulpit, pews and walls with gasoline and then set them alight.

Berutu worries that the aftermath of the looming July 22 announcement of the results of the country’s presidential election between Jakarta Governor Joko Widodo and retired General Prabowo Subianto might foster tensions that could lead to similar violence.

For Malaysians more familiar with Indonesia’s national slogan of 'unity in diversity' accounts of fearful church congregations bracing for arson attacks by Islamist militants might come as a surprise.

Intolerance eating way at harmony

But behind the Indonesian government’s rhetoric of “religious harmony” in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, there has been steady erosion in Indonesia’s tradition of religious tolerance in recent years.

The result? Indonesia’s religious minorities are increasingly under threat by Islamist militants and a government that refuses to defend their constitutional guarantees of religious freedom.

Across Indonesia, Muslim minorities, including Ahmadiyah, Shia and Sufi, as well as Catholic and Protestant groups, are targets of harassment, intimidation, threats and, increasingly, acts of mob violence.

The perpetrators are Sunni Islamist militant groups such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI).

They mobilise gangs that swarm minority houses of worship. The groups’ leaders justify such thuggery as attacks against “infidels” and “blasphemers”.

Indonesia's Setara Institute, which monitors religious freedom in Indonesia, documented 220 cases of violent attacks on religious minorities in 2013, an increase from 91 such cases in 2007.

Escalation in reported cases of religious violence against minorities in Indonesia:

2007    91
2008    257
2009    181
2010    216
2011    242
2012    264
2013    220

Source: Setara Institute

Recent incidents expose the human toll behind such statistics. On May 29, about a dozen robed Islamist militants attacked a Catholic prayer service at a private home in the ancient Javanese city of Yogyakarta.

The attackers inflicted serious injuries, including broken bones, on the home owner, three of his neighbours and a journalist.

Attacks on religious minorities can also come from government officials. On May 15, municipal government officials informed the congregation of the Pentecost Church in Rancaekek, near Bandung, West Java, that their church building would be immediately and forcibly renovated into a private residence.

Pentecost Church pastor Bennhard Maukar told Human Rights Watch that the pending destruction of the church building comes three years after the local government sealed the church as an “illegal” structure.

Indonesia’s 2006 national Decree on Houses of Worship gives local governments the power to approve the construction of houses of worship but it is not clear whether the government has the authority to demolish existing structures it disapproves of.

The decree routinely results in discriminatory construction prohibitions against religious minorities. In Aceh, it is even used to prevent Christian congregations from painting or undertaking  renovations of their houses of worship.

Indonesian Christians aren’t the only targets of discrimination by local government officials. On June 26, regency officials in Ciamis, West Java, sealed an Ahmadiyah mosque on the basis that Ahmadis are “heretics” and “blasphemous”. Syaiful Uyun, an Ahmadiyah imam, told Human Rights Watch that local governments in West Java have ordered the closure of at least 37 other Ahmadiyah mosques over the past six years.

The government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who leaves office in October after 10 years in power, has been part of the problem.

Feeding the fire of discord

Officials and security forces frequently facilitate harassment of religious minorities, in some cases even blaming the victims for the attacks.

Authorities have made blatantly discriminatory statements, refused to issue building permits for houses of worship, and pressured minority congregations to relocate.

Police have sided with Islamist militants at the expense of the rights of minorities, ostensibly to avoid violence.

In some cases, police colluded with the attackers for religious, economic or political reasons.

In other instances, they lacked clear instructions from above or felt outnumbered by militants.

In all cases though, the poor police response reflects institutional failure to uphold the law and hold perpetrators of violent crimes to account.

The Religious Affairs Ministry, the Coordinating Board for Monitoring Mystical Beliefs in Society under the Attorney-General's Office, and the semi-official Indonesian Ulama Council have all issued decrees and fatwas against members of religious minorities and pressed for the prosecution of "blasphemers."

Advice to new president

Such behaviour contravenes the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Indonesia became a party to in 2005.

The winner of Indonesia’s presidential election on July 9 should make a decisive break with the Yudhoyono government’s failure to support and protect the rights of religious minorities.

The new presiden, whether Joko (left) or Prabowo, can, and should, revoke laws facilitating religious discrimination, as well as ensure the prosecution of all those implicated in criminal threats or violence against religious minorities. To prove he's serious, he needs to adopt a "zero tolerance" approach to religious vigilantism.

Indonesia’s partners in the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) can play an important role in protecting Indonesia’s religious minorities.

They can start by making it clear to the winner of the presidential election that a key element of healthy bilateral relations between Indonesia and Asean countries is respect for the rights of religious minorities.

Asean  governments should be unequivocal that official tolerance for Islamist militant thugs is an impediment to building a stronger Asean community.

Failure to do so will only ensure that more of Indonesia religious minorities will live in fear of arson attacks – or worse – upon their houses of worship.

Andreas Harsono is the Jakarta-based Indonesia researcher for Human Rights Watch

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