Indonesia's Christians question tolerance award for president

Published 11 May 2013  |  
Protesters march to the US Embassy in Jakarta, Indonesia, on 6 May

According to the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, Indonesia President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is a world statesman who promotes religious tolerance.

According to the Clergy Forum of Jakarta, Banten and West Java in Indonesia, Yudhoyono turns a blind eye to oppression of minority religions in his own country.

The forum on Monday led a small march of about 50 people to the U.S. embassy in Jakarta to deliver a letter protesting the foundation's decision to give its 2013 World Statesman Award to Yudhoyono.

"He is the president of intolerance," Rev. Palti Panjaitan, of Batak Christian Protestant Filadelfia church, told World Watch Monitor.

He and the group left without finding anyone at the embassy to take the letter.

The New York-based Appeal of Conscience Foundation, formed in 1965, calls itself an "interfaith coalition of business and religious leaders promotes peace, tolerance and ethnic conflict resolution." It's annual World Statesman Award has been bestowed upon the likes of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper; South Korean President Lee Myung-bak; French President Nicolas Sarkozy; and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Clergy Forum Coordinator, Rev. Erwin Marbun, said he wonders just what criteria the foundation used to select Yudhoyono, or "SBY," as the president is widely called. Christian churches in Indonesia have been bulldozed, and minority Mulsims have been attacked by mobs – evidence of what the Agence France-Presse news service this week characterized as "religious intolerance sweeping the country."

"In fact, President SBY did not obey the law," Marbun told World Watch Monitor. "He missed in law enforcement in Indonesia. Look at the closure of places of worship in Indonesia as happened at GKI Yasmin, HKBP Filadelfia, the Shia in Sampang who can not return home till today, and the Ahmadiyah who are terrified by the violence of a group of people."

In power since 2004, the Yudhoyono government in 2006 issued regulations requiring religious groups that want to build a worship building to obtain signatures from at least 60 neighboring people belonging to different religions. They also require the groups to obtain permission from the local religious-affairs office.

The GKI Yasmin church, in Bogor west of Jakarta, has waged a years-long battle with local officials who have closed the church, despite subsequent federal orders that it be reopened. The HKBP Filadefia church, in nearby Bekasi, has been holding services in the street while going through a similar ordeal.

During Christmas Eve services at HKBP Filadefia, a crowd hurled eggs and cow dung at Panjaitan. On May 2, police questioned him a second time in connection with an assault case that arose when Palti confronted the leader of the crowd.

An HKBP-affiliated church in the suburbs of Jakarta was bulldozed in March by municipal crews under orders from local authorities. Across the Indonesian province of Aceh, 17 churches were closed in May 2012.

Christians represent at least 14 percent of the overwhelmingly Mulsim country, though the share may be higher because not all Christian churches affiliate with national organizations. Open Doors International, a worldwide ministry to Christians living under pressure for their beliefs, says the principal source of pressure upon Christians is not the government, but militant Islamic groups. And Christians are not the only ones to feel pressure from hardline elements of the Sunni majority.

In August, a mob of about 500 Sunnis drove minority Shia from their homes in near Sampang, on the eastern end of the island of Java. Two people were killed. On Monday on the western end of the island, hundreds of Islamic hardliners ransacked a community of minority Ahmadiyah Muslims.

"Therefore, we ask that the Appeal of Conscience Foundation to reconsider the plan for the sake of humanity, justice and peace in the world," Marbun said. The small protest march to the U.S. Embassy on Monday included representatives of GKI Yasmin, HKBP Filadelphia, and Shia and Ahmadiyah communities.

An Indonesian organization called the Human Rights Working Group also criticized the foundation's selection of Yudhoyono for the award.

"The president has to date never called on his officials to take firm action against perpetrators of intolerance who have clearly violated the Constitution," the group's deputy director, Muhammad Choirul Anam, was quoted as saying in the Jakarta Globe.

In announcing the recipient of its 2013 World Statesman Award, the Appeal of Conscience Foundation did not specify its reasons for selecting Yudhoyono. In bestowing the award upon Harper in 2012, the foundation said the award goes to a "leader who has helped advance freedom, democracy, human rights and peace globally."

The foundation, created in 1965 by Rabbi Arthur Schneier, "believes that freedom, democracy and human rights are the fundamental values that give nations of the world their best hope for peace, security and shared prosperity."

A Yudhoyono spokesman issued a statement Monday that the episodes of sectarian conflict are only part of the story.

"The intolerance cases should not blind the eyes of the commentators from seeing the many progresses in building Indonesian values under President SBY," Teuku Faizasyah is quoted as saying in the Globe.

The Foundation has scheduled a May 30 ceremony to formally present the award to Yudhoyono.

Source: World Watch Monitor

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