Uproar over plan to control Indonesia’s worship places

The National Counterterrorism Agency says worship places are used for spreading radical teachings

UCA News reporter

Updated: September 05, 2023 02:08 PM GMT

Islamic boarding school students pray at the al-Mukmin Pesantren in Ngruki, Sukoharjo, Central Java, founded by radical Islamist cleric Abu Bakar Bashir in this file image. (Photo: AFP)

Christian leaders in Indonesia have joined other faith groups to criticize a proposed government plan to control activities in religious worship places for the sake of tackling radicalism, saying it infringes on the constitutional right to freedom of religion.

The government must consider many aspects before proposing a discourse like this so as not to cause a stir in the public, said Father Yohanes Jeharut, executive secretary of the Lay Apostolic Commission of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Indonesia.

The priest responded after the head of the National Counterterrorism Agency or BNPT, Rycko Amelza Dahnile, told the parliament on Sept. 4 that the government needs to have a control mechanism for the use and abuse of places of worship.

Dahnile said BNPT had conducted comparative studies in Singapore and Malaysia as well as other countries such as Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Morocco where all mosques, places of worship, and those who give sermons, including its content are under government control.

He said, with this plan, the government will control who can provide, deliver sermons in places of worship, including controlling the content so that our places of worship are not used as tools to spread violent teachings, hateful teachings.

His proposal has sparked strong protests from various religious groups.

Father Jeharut said that so far the security forces – military and police – through their territorial units have been in place and cover the areas where places of worship are located.

The function of the territorial security apparatus alone needs to be optimized for early detection of threats and disturbances including terrorism. So, there is no need to talk about government control over all places of worship, he told UCA News on Sept. 5.

Reverend Gomar Gultom, chairman of the inter-church body, Union of Churches in Indonesia, said the plan only shows the government's frustration at being unable to overcome radicalism.

Rather than implementing this plan, I would rather ask for the government's seriousness and firm action against hate speech, intolerant acts and acts of violence, in accordance with applicable law, he said.

Indonesian Ulema Council, a major Islamic body, criticized the plan.

The proposal is contrary to the constitution which guarantees freedom of religion and the right to freedom of association, assembly and expression of opinion, council leader Anwar Abbas said in a statement.

The control plan is clearly a step backward and reflects a way of thinking and behaving that is not in accordance with the democratic principles that we have worked so hard to build and develop, he said.

He also said it tends towards a tyrannical approach which prioritizes the security approach and ignores a more dialogical, objective and rational approach.

Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority nation of about 277 million, has seen a rise in religious extremism and terror attacks in recent times that targeted both Muslims and non-Muslims.

Churches too have been targeted. On Palm Sunday 2021, a group affiliated with the Islamic State bombed Makassar Cathedral in South Sulawesi.

It came three years after the first church bombings on May 13, 2018, when terrorists bombed three churches in Surabaya, East Java.

The BNPT says although the authorities continue to foil attacks and even nab suspected terrorists, the threat of radicalism remains high, and houses of worship are often used to spread radical teachings.

Last year, Indonesia's anti-terror police unit, Special Detachment 88, arrested 247 suspected terrorists, and in 2021, 370 were arrested.

In July, security forces nabbed five terror suspects in connection with the suicide bomb attack at the police station in Astanaanyar of Bandung.

Stanislaus Riyanta, an intelligence analyst from the University of Indonesia told UCA News the government plan is misleading because it is more important to stop threat-making actors, not monitor places of worship.

The monitoring is also covered, for example with intelligence, rather than being announced openly, he said.

I consider this plan excessive and wrong in concept, he added.

He stated security forces such as as Special Detachment 88 have carried out good supervision and it has been proven that many acts of terror have failed because they were successfully prevented.

However, limited personnel means that supervision is not optimal. BNPT should be more at the strategic level, not technical so that BNPT prepares strategies at the prevention stage, he said.

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