The first surprise came when the U.S.-based Appeal of Conscience Foundation (ACF) decided to give Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (aka SBY) the World Statesman Award for promoting religious freedom in his country. The second surprise was when SBY accepted it two weeks ago.
For a group guided by the belief that “a crime committed in the name of religion is the greatest crime against religion,” it is quite a surprise that ACF chose to honor the leader of a country where cases of religious intolerance have risen dramatically over the years. SBY even acknowledged the issue in his acceptance speech.
“Pockets of intolerance persist,” he said. “Communal conflicts occasionally flare up. Religious sensitivities sometimes give rise to disputes, with groups taking matters into their own hands.”
Critics of the award can be classified into two groups. The first are those who think that it’s premature to recognize the efforts of SBY and his government to promote religious harmony in the world’s most populous Muslim nation. The second are those who accuse SBY of deliberately doing nothing to stop the attacks against religious minorities.
Last month, an Ahmadi mosque was attacked in East Java. Further, some Shiites are still living in refugee camps nine months after being driven from their homes in Sampang, also in East Java. Shiite’s and Ahmadiyah are minority Islamic communities in predominantly Sunni Muslim Indonesia.
Meanwhile, in West Java, Protestant congregations of GKI Taman Yasmin and HKBP Filadelfia have been prevented by authorities from holding services in their own churches.
Critics of SBY highlighted a 2006 regulation that made it difficult for minority church groups to build places of worship. SBY also signed a law that recognized only six major religions in the country, thereby discriminating against more than 350 religions with small numbers of followers. In 2008, SBY issued the controversial anti-Ahmadiyah decree, which imposed a jail term of up to five years on anyone who spreads the group’s teachings. In West Java, Governor Ahmad Heryawan passed an order in 2011 that banned Ahmadiyah activities altogether.
In addition, Indonesia continues to implement the 1965 Blasphemy Law to suppress minority religions.
One of the most outspoken critics of the award is Jesuit priest Franz Magnis-Suseno, an Indonesian of German descent, who reminded ACF in an open letter that SBY has reneged on his pledge to protect minority religions in Indonesia. In the letter, he asks: “Do you not know about the growing difficulties of Christians to get permits for opening places of prayer, about the growing number of forced closures of churches, about the growth of regulations that make worshipping for minorities more difficult?”
Perhaps anticipating the protests, in his acceptance speech SBY spoke about the freedom of minority religions to build their worship centers. He reported that Indonesia has 255,000 mosques, 13,000 Hindu temples, 2,000 Buddhist temples, 1,300 Confucian temples, and 61,000 Christian churches – all of which he cited as proof that his government respects religious freedom.
In the speech, he also vowed that his government “will not tolerate any act of senseless violence committed by any group in the name of religion.”
He added: “We will not allow any desecration of places of worship of any religion for whatever reason. We will always protect our minorities and ensure that no one suffers from discrimination. We will make sure that those who violate the rights of others will face the arms of justice.”
But SBY has to do more if he wants to prove the sincerity of his pledges. Even the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, has voiced her concern about the growing religious intolerance in Indonesia.
Ultimately, the protest is not exactly about SBY receiving a global award. Nobody complained when he received an honorary doctorate from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University and the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of Bath award from Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. These awards, however, were not based on his policies on religion.
By contrast, the ACF statesman award has become a lightning rod for criticism. While Indonesia’s economy may be doing quite nicely under SBY, the promotion of religious freedom is not exactly one of his major achievements.
SBY could prove his critics wrong by decisively ending religious persecution in Indonesia in the last remaining months of his term.