Konradus Epa, Jakarta – Indonesia's top Islamic clerical body has come under fire from rights activists for declaring an interfaith marriage between a Catholic man and a Muslim woman invalid.
The couple, who were not named, were married in a Catholic church in Semarang, Central Java, this month.
However, a few days after the ceremony, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) declared the marriage invalid.
The organization's general secretary, Amirsyah Tambunan, cited a 2005 edict issued by the council which said that interfaith marriages were banned in Indonesia.
"As a result, the marriage of this couple is invalid and cannot be allowed," he said on March 9.
Rights groups condemned the statement and questioned the so-called edict, saying there was nothing in Indonesian law that prevented the couple from getting married.
Ahmad Nurcholish, deputy director of the Indonesia Conference on Religion on Peace, an interfaith organization, said the MUI cannot say that interfaith marriage is invalid.
"Interfaith marriage is a right for all citizens of legal age and should be respected," Nurcholish, a Muslim, said in a statement on March 13.
He was referring to a 1999 human rights law that said every Indonesian has the right to choose their own spouse, get married and have a family.
Nurcholish, who counsels interfaith couples, said such marriages are possible because Indonesia has a secular and pluralist society.
He said it was he who filed the wedding documents after the couple and their families agreed to get married in a church.
"I have arranged marriages for some 30 interfaith couples and have never encountered problems before," he said.
However, he admitted Indonesian law can be somewhat vague on the validation of interfaith marriages.
He said the 1974 law on marriage says couples should be of the same religion, but one clause in the law states that a marriage can be valid "if conducted according to laws of religion and belief of both parties," which was what occurred in this case.
Bonar Tigor Naipospos, deputy chairman of the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, backed Nurcholish and accused the MUI of being intolerant.
"This is what we want to avoid. Interfaith couples are aware of religious differences and respect one another," he told UCA News on March 14.
He called for the 1974 law to be revised to remove any ambiguities.
Father Antonius Benny Susetyo, a member of a presidential unit promoting communal tolerance, said it is a couple's right to marry who they choose. "It's a decision we should all respect," he said.