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Indonesia's top court issues circular against interfaith marriage

It contradicts a 1986 Supreme Court ruling that states interfaith marriages are legal by way of a court order
Ahmad Nurcholish, an interfaith marriage counselor with Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace, poses for a photo session with an interfaith couple in this file image

Ahmad Nurcholish, an interfaith marriage counselor with Indonesian Conference on Religion and Peace, poses for a photo session with an interfaith couple in this file image. (Photo supplied)

Published: July 20, 2023 12:19 PM GMT
Updated: July 20, 2023 12:33 PM GMT

The top court in Indonesia has come out with a circular requesting courts not to grant a nod to interfaith marriages contradictory to its 1986 ruling which makes interfaith marriages legal in the Muslim-majority Southeast Asian nation.

In the July 17 circular, Muhammad Syarifuddin, chairman of the Supreme Court, emphasized the need to establish guidelines to "provide certainty and unity in the application of law in adjudicating applications for the registration of marriages between people of different religions and beliefs."

The Supreme Court stressed that "a valid marriage is a marriage that is carried out according to the laws of each religion and belief" in accordance with the 1974 Marriage Law.

The circular contradicts a 1986 Supreme Court ruling that states interfaith marriages are legal in Indonesia by way of a court order. The order later became the jurisprudence for judges in deciding similar cases.

This order was banked on by religious institutions, including the Catholic Church, to conduct interfaith marriage ceremonies.

The new circular came after Muslim groups protested against several court decisions that recently granted a nod to marriages between Muslim and Christian couples.

Father Yohanes Aristanto Heri Setiawan of the Missionaries of the Holy Family (MSF), executive secretary of the Indonesian Bishops' Conference Family Commission, said that he was not ready to comment on this circular.

"We are still discussing the response to the circular letter," he told UCA News on July 20.

Ahmad Nurcholish, a Muslim cleric and program director for the Indonesia Conference on Religion and Peace, said the circular was “an extraordinary setback for the Supreme Court” because it contradicted the 1986 ruling which actually provided a way out for interfaith couples.

"I am disappointed and surprised," said Nurcholish, who is also a counselor for interfaith couples. He claims to have helped 1,655 interfaith couples marry since 2005.

With the circular, it is possible that interfaith couples will marry abroad only to re-register later in Indonesia, he told UCA News.

"They may also be forced to choose a religion, even if temporarily, just to have their marriage legalized," he said.

Bonar Tigos Naipospos, vice chairman of Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace, an advocacy organization for religious freedom, said the circular was "a setback and closed room for the advancement of the judiciary in guaranteeing the rights of citizens from diverse backgrounds."

Naipospos emphasized that the state's obligation to a citizen's marriage should "respect and protect the choices of each citizen."

"The state's obligation is only to record the marriages of these citizens and provide justice in related administrative services," he said.

He also urged the Supreme Court to revoke the circular and asked the House of Representatives, the national parliament, and the government to revise the 1974 Marriage Law.

“The state must establish a marriage law that is in accordance with Pancasila [secular ideology] and Indonesia's diversity," he said.

Cholil Nafis from the Indonesian Ulema Council, an Islamic scholars' apex body, stated that he supported the circular, which he called "a form of respect for the Supreme Court for the teachings of religions in Indonesia."

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