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Indonesia’s ‘Religious Tolerance Model’ Fantasy

Vice President Disregards Discriminatory Regulations

Indonesian Vice President Muhammad Jusuf Kalla addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 21, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

Indonesia’s Vice President Jusuf Kalla last week praised religious tolerance in Indonesia as “better than in other countries” and a model “for other countries to learn [religious] tolerance.”

If only.

Kalla’s comments reflect the government’s willful disregard of both the corrosive influence of discriminatory laws that pose a clear threat to the country’s religious minorities, as well as official actions to reinforce those laws. In September, during the United Nation’s periodic review of Indonesia’s human rights record, the government made it clear the country’s dangerously ambiguous blasphemy law, which overwhelmingly targets religious minorities, is here to stay. Jakarta demonstrated that by rejecting recommendations from UN member countries to repeal the law. It also rejected a recommendation to amend or revoke laws that limit the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion in the country.

Indonesia’s religious minorities have every reason to be alarmed. That’s because the blasphemy law and other legislation have frequently been used to prosecute and imprison members of religious minorities. Recent victims include three former leaders of the Gafatar religious community, prosecuted for blasphemy following the violent forced eviction of more than 7,000 Gafatar members from their farms on Kalimantan Island last year. Another was the former Jakarta governor, Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, sentenced to two years in prison in May.

And the Indonesian government does not appear satisfied with just ignoring UN calls to scrap the blasphemy law. The Religious Affairs Ministry wants to reinforce and expand its scope through the so-called Religious Rights Protection bill, which parliament will likely debate later this year.

Kalla and other senior government officials will probably point to the government’s acceptance of other ambiguously worded recommendations – which only pay lip-service to the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion – as evidence of its commitment to religious freedom. But Indonesia’s religious minorities are well aware of the glaring gap between their government’s religious freedom rhetoric and the far more abusive reality.

Kalla should publicly recognize that touting an illusory “model of religious tolerance” is not only an exercise in self-deception, but a gross insult to religious minorities who are at risk of these discriminatory laws.

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