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Indonesian Catholics ‘watchful’ after hardline Islamist released

Muhammad Rizieq Shihab has been known for hate speeches against religious minorities including Christians

Indonesian Muslim cleric Rizieq Shihab (center) is surrounded by his supporters on arrival at police headquarters in Jakarta on Dec. 12, 2020

Indonesian Muslim cleric Rizieq Shihab (center) is surrounded by his supporters on arrival at police headquarters in Jakarta on Dec. 12, 2020. (Photo: Dasril Roszandi/AFP)

Published: July 20, 2022 09:59 AM GMT

Updated: July 21, 2022 08:06 AM GMT

Indonesia’s Catholic activists say they would be watchful over an influential hardline Islamic cleric after his release on parole following more than one year of imprisonment.

Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, founder and former leader of the banned Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), was released from Cipinang Penitentiary in East Jakarta on July 20.  

Shihab, 56, was arrested in December 2020 after he was accused of circulating false information about his Covid-19 test result. He was charged for flouting the pandemic rules.

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In June last year, a court in Jakarta jailed him for four years. Later, the Supreme Court commuted his sentence to two years.

The firebrand cleric was detained shortly after he returned from Saudi Arabia, where he fled to avoid arrest over a pornography case. The case was later dropped.

Yohanes Handoyo Budhisedjati, chairman of the Jakarta-based Catholic political organization, Vox Point Indonesia, said the Muslim cleric must be more cautious in his words and actions.

“He knows the deterrent effect as he has spent time in jail. I hope he will be able to become a wise man. He was released on parole, and as a good citizen he must obey the rules,” Budhisedjati told UCA News. “Being released on parole means that he can be returned to prison to continue to serve his sentence if he makes any ‘negative’ movement causing social unrest and threatening national unity.”

He insisted that despite Shihab’s record of hate speech against Christians, Catholics are not afraid of his release. However, he called on Catholics to “monitor” his activities.

Catholics would welcome if he changes his mind and becomes a good citizen by embracing the values of the national ideology of Pancasila, he said.

“But we must take strict action if he spreads hate speech in his sermons,” he added.

Pancasila (five principles) stipulates belief in one God, a just and civilized society, a united Indonesia, a democracy guided by consensus, and social justice for all citizens irrespective of religion.

Magdalena Tri Natalia Urada, the chairperson of the Catholic student group, the Union of the University Students of the Republic of Indonesia (PMKRI), said she hopes the cleric would refrain from inflammatory sermons and hate speeches against religious minorities.

“If that happens again, we will not stay silent,” she told UCA News.

“One of our roles is to file a report if there is any movement threatening the national unity. This is about our sovereignty,” Urada added.

In December 2016, PMKRI filed a police report against Shihab for allegedly committing blasphemy.

In a video of the speech, the cleric mocked Christians by saying, "If God gave birth, then who would be the midwife?”

The blasphemy allegation came amid a violent movement by supporters of Shihab’s FPI against then Jakarta’s Christian governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama alias Ahok. The Christian governor was accused of defaming Islam for allegedly telling voters not to rely on Quran.

Ahok was found guilty of insulting Quran and sentenced to two years in prison in 2017. He was released in January 2019.

It is believed that Shihab was at the forefront of protests to bring down Ahok, with backing from other Islamist political parties.

Shihab founded the FPI in 1998, allegedly with backing from military and political figures. The group has been notorious for violence and persecution of religious minorities as well as liberal Muslims.

In 2020, the Indonesian government revoked the FPI’s organizational permit and banned the group on charges of threatening Indonesia’s national ideology and engaging in criminal activities.

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