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The way ahead for Indonesia's indigenous belief groups

Followers of local traditional faiths need political protection not just constitutional recognition

The way ahead for Indonesia's indigenous belief groups

In this March 21, 2014 photo, a Sumbanese man stands by a wall decorated with water buffalo horns in Waikabubak, on West Sumba island in eastern Indonesia. While the majority of Sumbanese are Christians, many still practice ancient animistic beliefs. The horns are a sign of wealth and fortune when the animal is sacrificed during the funeral of Sumbanese family members. (Photo by Romeo Gacad/AFP)

Max Regus, Indonesia
Indonesia

June 1, 2018

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In November last year Indonesia's Constitutional Court ruled on a very important case concerning the rights to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. As a result followers of indigenous faith groups have been allowed to put their religious status on their Electronic Identity Card (E-KTP).

There have been different responses to the ruling. However, the crucial question is how does the decision fully guarantee followers of indigenous beliefs basic rights?

Some think Indonesia has significantly strengthened human rights through this decision.

However, there are issues that still need to be taken into account.

Indonesia officially recognizes only six religions — Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Kong Hu-Chu (Confucianism).

As such, the Indonesian government provides a column for these religions on the E-KTP so that their followers can state their religious status.

Consequently, the approximately 12 million followers of about 200 indigenous faiths not defined as a religion, cannot enter their religious status on their E-KTP.

They include the followers of Kapribaden, a spiritual practice aimed at obtaining self-understanding before knowing God. Also there is Sunda Wiwitan, which venerates the power of nature and the spirits of ancestors and which has been followed since before Hinduism arrived on the archipelago around the first century AD.

This situation raises serious problems for these followers, as an E-KTP is a vitally important document for Indonesians.

It means E-KTP holders that do not have a religion entered can and do face difficulties in accessing various public services.

The Constitutional Court's decision has given the Indonesian public the impression that it has made a very powerful constitutional change by guaranteeing the rights of followers of indigenous faiths.

Under the ruling they received "politico-legal recognition" in terms of declaring their 'faith affiliation' on their E-KTP.

However, their problems are not over yet as there is a stumbling block.

The influential Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), Indonesia's top Muslim clerical body, firmly opposes the Constitutional Court's ruling.

According to the MUI, indigenous faiths are different from the six recognized religions.

The clerical body has since asked the Indonesian government to create a special E-KTP by providing a special column for "followers of indigenous faiths" and not "religion" as these faiths cannot be categorized as a "religion" according to the constitution.

Rights groups, however, say this view illustrates an underlying discriminatory attitude among Muslims toward religious minorities.

This is disputed by the MUI which argues it only want to look at and clarify what it says is a practical and legal problem, since the identity cards only carry a "religion" column.

According to the MUI, the status of indigenous beliefs and religions now overlap which makes the juridical-formal position of the six religions "unclear."

Various actors and public figures, mainly in the field of human rights, meanwhile believe the court decision guaranteeing the status of indigenous belief groups can strengthen Indonesia's sense of being a multicultural nation.

They view the Constitutional Court as helping Indonesia move forward as an inclusive nation-state by trying to break up social barriers that, from time to time, produce tension, conflict, and inter-group violence.

At home and abroad, human rights defenders and organizations agree that the court decision is an important political and constitutional step in the context of strengthening human rights in Indonesia, especially with regard to other religious minority groups generally.

The decision is primarily accepted as a major achievement in the face of intolerance and violence inflicted against religious minorities over the years in Indonesia, as it should now afford followers of indigenous beliefs and religious minorities political protection.

Indonesia's government now has an obligation to take a decisive step and start implementing the court's decision.

To solve the problem raised by the MUI, the government should initiate a wide discussion among multi-actors, institutions, and stakeholders at all levels of society.

It also needs to ensure the 'protection' and 'fulfillment' of basic rights for indigenous belief groups are realized.

Legal recognition without political protection will be a useless "constitutional achievement" in Indonesia.

Father Max Regus holds a Ph.D. degree in Social Sciences and Humanities from University of Tilburg, the Netherlands. He is now working on a postdoctoral project entitled 'Religion and Peacebuilding in Asia' supported by the Institute of Missiology Aachen, Germany.

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