Amid concerns over cases of obstruction of worship for religious minorities including Christians by Muslims in Indonesia, President Jokowi Widodo has told heads of provinces and districts to guarantee equal religious freedom to all.
During a coordination meeting with heads of provinces and districts in Sentul, West Java province on Jan. 17, Widodo said local officials should be "careful" to ensure every believer enjoys the same right to worship.
"Those who are Christians, Catholics, Hindus, and Confucians... have the same rights in terms of freedom of religion and worship," he said, alluding to the four religions recognized by the state in the world's largest Muslim-majority nation.
He said the constitution guarantees freedom of religion for all, therefore every regional head must pay attention to this matter.
Widodo also highlighted the role of the Forum for Religious Harmony [FKUB] in each region, which often makes agreements contrary to the constitution, such as "agreed not to allow the building of places of worship."
"Don't let the name of the constitution be defeated by an agreement. The constitution must not lose to an agreement," he said.
The FKUB, which was formed by the local government and consists of representatives of all religions, is often criticized by human rights groups who accuse it of making decisions or policies that appease Muslims.
Widodo also asked military leaders, police, and prosecutors to pay attention to freedom of worship and urged regional heads not to issue regulations that contradict the constitution.
He said he brought it up because "I see it's still happening." "Sometimes I think, how difficult is it for people to worship. It's sad to hear that," he said.
The Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, the research and advocacy institute for religious freedom, reported that Catholics and Protestants have frequently faced harassment and abuses over places of worship since 2017. Churches faced resistance to construction, theft, destruction, and attacks including bombings.
In recent years, the number of cases has continued to fluctuate, from 16 in 2017, 13 in 2018, 20 in 2019, and 7 in 2020 to 24 in 2021.
During Christmas last year, the residents and officials banned the Bethlehem Batak Protestant Church in Batu Gede, Bogor district, West Java province from holding Christmas services in their homes.
In a video circulated on social media, residents forbade the congregation to worship at home because they considered it not a place of worship.
The Lebak district head in Banten province also prohibited Christians from celebrating Christmas in the area, which does not have a church, by using shophouses and asking them to worship in churches far away.
Reverend Palti Panjaitan, chairman of a solidarity group for victims of religious persecution told UCA News that the president's statement was "certainly welcome because so far the president has been silent" on repeated violations.
"However, it needs to be followed up by revoking the 2006 Joint Ministerial Decree which has been a tool to perpetuate violations of the rights of minority groups," he said.
He said the joint regulation, which requires the approval of other religious groups before building a house of worship "violated the constitution."
"The establishment permit should not come from the community, but from the state," said the pastor of the Batak Society Christian Church Philadelphia in Bekasi district, West Java. The church has been unable to obtain a permit for a building since 2007 due to resistance from hardline groups and the local government.
He said the president should also ask for strict law enforcement against those who obstruct freedom of religion. "Every time there is a violation by state or non-state actors, action must be taken," he said.
Catholic priest, Father Antonius Benny Susetyo, known for his activism for interfaith dialogue and communal harmony, also welcomed the president's move.
"Regional heads must carry out the constitutional mandate to guarantee freedom of religion as emphasized by the president. They must also provide guidance and understanding to their communities so that mutual respect for fellow believers is created," the former executive secretary of the Indonesian bishops' commission on Interreligious Relations and Beliefs, told UCA News.
In dealing with the problem of refusing to build houses of worship or allowing the carrying out of worship activities, the regional head must also play a role in initiating deliberations with all religious adherents, the priest said.
In a statement, Setara institute's research director Halili Hasan said they praise the president for "one of the strongest messages conveyed openly" because it specifically underlined issues of worship and the establishment of places of worship as one of the main issues of violations of freedom of religion/belief in Indonesia, not just in general about tolerance and diversity.
Since the issue of permission for worship and places of worship is a complex and serious matter, it remains to be seen whether the directive is effectively implemented, Hasan said.