Indonesian bishops attend a national meeting organized by lay group Vox Point on to discuss crucial issues ahead of the regional elections in June and next year's presidential poll. (Photo supplied)
Catholic lay groups in Indonesia are focusing their efforts on ensuring upcoming local elections in June and presidential polls next year are not marred by sectarian mudslinging seen in recent campaigns such as the Jakarta governor election last year.
During a three-day national gathering in Jakarta that ended on May 1, Vox Point, a lay organization involved in sociopolitical activities, discussed what attitudes Catholics should adopt amid an increasingly bitter political climate, which many say threatens to carve deep divisions in Indonesian pluralistic society.
Another Catholic lay group — Catholic Youth — is expected to discuss the same issue at a gathering in Bali over the weekend.
The Vox Point meeting — also attended by six bishops and several state officials — ended with the organization affirming its commitment "to conducting politics with dignity" and to cooperate with others including interfaith groups in fighting sectarianism.
"We firmly reject black campaigns that negatively target religion, race and ethnicity and employ the use of lies and persecution," the group said in a statement.
"We will back the police, military, local government and intelligence agencies to rigidly enforce the law against those who want to destroy Pancasila [the state ideology of respecting diversity]," it added.
The group called on Catholic politicians to promote integrity, show competence and uphold Catholics values.
Vox Point chairman Yohanes Handoyo Budhisejati told ucanews.com a disturbing trend has emerged in politics that urgently needs to be addressed.
"We are worried that the situation will spur social conflicts," he said.
Last year, Jakarta's former Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama was jailed for blasphemy after using a quranic verse during an election campaign which also saw hard-line Muslims demanding people vote along religious lines.
More recently, supporters of President Joko Widodo were confronted, mocked and threatened on April 29 by a rival group at a weekly Car Free Day event in central Jakarta, which sparked public outrage.
The group also said it will use all means to support candidates opposed to Widodo, whom they labeled anti-Islamic.
"We are not endorsing a certain candidate, but we are concerned about the future of this country," said Budhisejati.
Bishop Ignatius Suharyo, chairman of the bishops' conference, backed the Vox Point stance, saying sectarian issues are a real challenge that can damage the country's diversity.
"However, we must strive continuously and take concrete steps to keep the spirit of brotherhood intact," he said. "Catholics must be active in these efforts."
Lucius Karus, a political analyst, presented a grim outlook for the upcoming polls, saying politicians will almost certainly use sectarianism as a means to gain more votes.
He said two factors would trigger this. "Candidates believe voters can be easily manipulated by such tactics, and that no firm action will be taken against them if they do," he said.
Lidya Natalia Sartono, an election candidate in West Kalimantan province, said she was determined to avoid sectarian politics.
"That same commitment is certainly expected from all candidates," she said
It is also important that we all work to educate voters in order not to be easily provoked by those who use sectarian issues during elections, she added.