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Concerns over Indonesian clerics preaching poll politics

Regional elections are set for June; bishops and some mosques call for separation of politics and faith during campaigning

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Concerns over Indonesian clerics preaching poll politics

Members and sympathizers of the FPI and other hard-line groups take part in a protest on March 31, 2017, to demand then Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama be arrested for blasphemy. The groups exploited religious sentiment to bolster their campaigns for an election which saw Purnama, a Chinese Christian, lose a religiously tinged race. (Photo by Ryan Dagur/ucanews.com)

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The Indonesian Bishops' Commission for Laity has joined several civil society groups in calling for places of worship not to be exploited for political or sectarian purposes during election campaigns as regional polls draw near.

The call comes after the General Elections Commission announced campaign dates for elections in 17 provinces, 39 municipalities and 115 districts.

Campaigning for the local elections have begun and are set to end on June 23, four days before polling on June 27.

"During last year's elections in Jakarta, many religious leaders became involved in politics. They were unaware that they became tools of certain groups to win the elections," Father Paulus Christian Siswantoko, the commission's executive secretary, told ucanews.com on March 26.

"It seems that this year's regional elections won't see a significant change as issues of ethnicity, religion and race remain a highly political commodity," he said.

"Many people's knowledge of politics remains low and this can be used by politicians for their own benefit," he added.

He said the commission has asked Catholic leaders to avoid placing banners containing campaign messages in church compounds and not deliver campaign messages during community prayer meetings.

"The church should be a role model showing how religion is clean and free of secular politics," Father Siswantoko said.

Hard-line Muslim groups exploited religious sentiment to bolster their campaigns during Jakarta's last elections, which saw Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the Chinese Christian governor, lose a religiously-tinged race.

Leaders of the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) claimed the use of dakwah or preaching at mosques helped garner votes for Muslim candidates.

This led Muslim Anies Rasyid Baswedan to defeat Purnama, who was leading the polls until he was accused of blasphemy against Islam in a criminal trial.

Anticipating the trend, Father Siswantoko and leaders of civil society groups, including the Yogyakarta-based Institute for Interfaith Dialogue in Indonesia (Interfidei), met on March 25 to voice their concern.

They said in a statement that "if religions are politicized, they will be humiliated as they are being exploited as a means of garnering votes."

Elga Joan Sarapung, director of Interfidei, sees the use of preaching to aid politicians' campaigns as deceitful.

"By using preaching to garner votes for certain candidates, religious leaders dupe their followers. They should realize that they must not disgrace religious values for the sake of their political interests," she said.

She added that the Jakarta election was an example of "how places of worship like mosques were used to deliver such preaching."

Reverend Henriette Tabita Lebang, chairwoman of the Communion of Churches in Indonesia, agreed with the call and said places of worship must not be used as venues for electoral campaigns.

"We must respect religious followers' different political views," she said, adding that the organization issued an Easter message in mid-March highlighting a similar message.

In the middle of February, Islamic groups in Mataram, West Nusa Tenggara placed banners rejecting bids to allow campaigns to infringe on mosque compounds, including at Hubbul Wathon Great Mosque.

Sulaiman Damsuri, who manages the mosque, said these religious venues "must only be used to spread Islamic values."

However, Novel Chaidir Hasan Bamukmin, a member of both the FPI and the Brotherhood of 212 Alumni, an alliance of Islamic hard-line groups, rejected the call. He called it "a religious distortion."

The "212" refers to a protest date — Dec. 2, 2016 — when thousands of Muslim hardliners demanded Purnama be arrested for blasphemy.

"It [the call] separates religion from politics. This is called secularism. Secularism is considered haram [forbidden] and really misleading," he said.

"For upcoming regional elections, ulemas and Muslims are obliged to vote for Muslim candidates," he said, referring to the body of Muslim scholars recognized as having specialist knowledge of Islamic sacred law.

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