A. Muh. Ibnu Aqil, Jakarta – A notorious joint ministerial decree that regulates the construction of houses of worship may be subject to a judicial review by the Supreme Court after going unchallenged for more than a decade.
The 2006 decree on places of worship, issued jointly by the Religious Affairs Ministry and the Home Ministry, has been criticized by activists for being misused by local communities to prevent the construction of places of worship for minority groups across the country.
According to a document obtained by The Jakarta Post, Tirtayasa, who represents a group of petitioners calling themselves the People's Lawsuit Presidium (PRM), filed a request earlier this month for the Supreme Court to review articles 13(1), 13(3) and 14(2)(b) of the decree.
The last time the decree was challenged at the Supreme Court was in 2008 by another civil society group called the Team of Religious Freedom Defenders. Their case file was rejected.
Lambok F. Sihombing, head of the Pemuda Batak Bersatu (PBB) civil society group that has joined the fight under the banner of the PRM, said he wished the court justices would "think clearly" and prioritize religious tolerance.
"The joint ministerial decree means [religious freedom is] free but with an asterisk [...] We want this to be tested and whether it is still relevant in our current situation," he told the Post recently. "If it isn't, then it should be scrapped or at least modified."
Religious minorities are particularly susceptible, because the decree stipulates a need to obtain "consent" from the majority of a local community, and even then such projects are easily stalled by complaints from other residents.
Although Indonesia's Constitution guarantees the freedom of religion for every citizen, the decree requires a congregation to obtain 90 signatures from its members and another 60 from other residents before building a house of worship.
It also requires that the congregation obtain an endorsement letter from the local administration and a recommendation letter from the local regional affairs office and the Religious Harmony Forum (FKUB) – an interfaith forum that reflects the religious makeup of each region, with each faith or belief system represented by at least one person, if at all possible.
These obligations have proven difficult for adherents to religions other than Islam, the country's majority religion. Christians, the second-largest religious group in the country, make up about 10 percent of the population, while other minorities still face rejection because their small congregations struggle to satisfy the regulation's requirements.
Lambok said the controversy also went beyond traditional houses of worship, such as mosques and churches, and called on the court to alter or scrap the provision on community endorsement.
He noted the recent vandalizing of the Tumaluntung village hall in North Sulawesi's North Minahasa regency, which serves as an informal prayer hall for the local Muslim community in a region that is predominantly Christian.
"We aren't fighting minorities or majorities – talking in those terms ultimately depends on the area in question," Lambok said.
Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch (HRW) Indonesia researcher Andreas Harsono said that Christians have found it particularly hard to get the required community backing, as certain denominations were quite small and exclusivist.
Between January 2007 and November 2019, human rights watchdog Setara Institute recorded 199 cases of persecution against churches, followed by mosques (133), Buddhist monasteries (15), Confucian (10) and Hindu (8) temples and one against a Jewish synagogue as well as 32 cases against other houses of worship.
And while the rejection of minorities' houses of worship occurred more regularly in at least 24 provinces across the country, Andreas said the joint decree also put nonmainstream sects or denominations of majority religions in the crosshairs.
For instance, in Bogor, West Java – known as one of the most intolerant regions in Indonesia – residents protested against the construction of places of worship for nonmainstream branches of Islam and Christianity.
The Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal Mosque in North Bogor became a site of protest in 2017 when its organizer applied for the building to be renovated. Locals were wary, because it was linked to the purist Salafi school of Islamic thought that considers mainstream practices of Islam heretic.
The Bandung State Administrative Court (PTUN) ruled in favor of the mosque that same year, after the Bogor administration had suspended its building permit (IMB).
In 2008, a similar incident affected the Yasmin Indonesian Christian Church (GKI Yasmin), but the Bandung PTUN and the State Administrative High Court in Jakarta ordered the Bogor administration to revoke its decree freezing the church's building permit.
The Supreme Court also ruled in favor of GKI Yasmin in 2010, but the Bogor mayor revoked its permit a year later, forcing the congregation to hold sermons, including Christmas celebrations, outside the building for years.
"In other words, the 2006 decree enabled the majority group to clamp down on minorities," Andreas told the Post, noting that it provided dissenting locals with a legal basis for rejecting such projects.
"It is our position that [the joint ministerial decree] needs to be scrapped."