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Blasphemy cases rise sharply in Indonesia

Number more than doubles in year due to use of religion in politics and hate speech crackdown, rights group says

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Blasphemy cases rise sharply in Indonesia

Bonar Tigor Naipospos, deputy chairman of the Jakarta-based Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, speaks to journalists about the politicization of religion as the main factor in the sharp rise in blasphemy cases. (Photo by Katharina R. Lestari/ucanews.com)

Blasphemy cases in Indonesia more than doubled last year, according to a human rights group.

There were 25 reported cases as opposed to only nine cases in 2017, said the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, which attributed the rise to a hate speech crackdown and an increase in using religion as a tool in politics.

Prior to that, Indonesia only saw a single-figure number of cases per year on average dating back to 1965 when the blasphemy law was introduced.

Probably the most prominent case was Meliana, a 44-year-old Buddhist woman who was sentenced to 18 months in prison by the Medan District Court in North Sumatra in August, Setara’s research director Halili told ucanews.com.

The Chinese-Indonesian mother of four was accused of blasphemy after she complained to the daughter of the caretaker of a nearby mosque that the call to prayer on loudspeakers was too loud.

Muslims in her hometown of Tanjung Balai took her comments to mean she wanted the call to prayer stopped. Mobs attacked her home and ransacked more than a dozen Buddhist temples, said Halili, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.

Halili said misuse of the 1965 blasphemy law which recognizes only six religions — Buddhism, Catholicism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam and Protestantism — and bans others as well as prohibits alternative interpretations of recognized religions including Islam contributed to the increase.

The 2016 Electronic and Transactions Law, which outlaws the spread of so-called hate speech against ethnic groups, religions and races, had also played a significant role in bringing about blasphemy charges and also other acts that were considered acts against religious freedom. 

“Both [laws] are often used to repress others,” Halili said.

Setara’s deputy chairman Bonar Tigor Naipospos also pointed to the politicization of religion as a main factor in the sharp rise in blasphemy cases. 

“If polarization [along ethnic and religious lines] continues and the politicization of religion is used by competing political parties, we will see what we call ‘the generation of the reporter’ in which people will file blasphemy reports to overcome their political opponents,” he said.

The defeat of Christian former governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama in 2016 after being accused by hardline Muslims of blasphemy potentially opened the floodgates, he said.

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