June 10, 2008 / 6:44 AM / 12 years ago

Indonesia's religious tolerance under threat-group

By Telly Nathalia and Olivia Rondonuwu

JAKARTA, June 10 (Reuters) - Indonesia’s president should stand up for religious tolerance and reverse a decree permitting prosecution of a sect many Muslim brand as heretical, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has delayed taking a clear decision on the fate of the Ahmadiyya sect for weeks, seeking a delicate balance on an issue that has inflamed passions and seen violence by hardline Muslim groups against the sect.

A government team tasked with monitoring religious groups recommended in April it should be banned as the sect’s teachings deviate from fundamental Islamic tenets.

A ministerial decree on Monday stopped short of banning Ahmadiyya, but warned that followers could face five years in jail for tarnishing religion under Indonesia’s criminal code.

"The Indonesian government should stand up for religious tolerance instead of prosecuting people for their religious views," Brad Adams, Asia director at U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

Ahmadiyya has been a subject of heated controversy after the Ulema Council, Indonesia’s Islamic authority, branded it "deviant".

Two ministers, as well as the attorney general, signed a decree on Monday, later approved by the president, urging members of the minority sect to stop proselytising or face arrest.

It also urged others not to violate laws by acting against Ahmadiyya.

"As long as they admit they are Muslims, (Ahmadiyya) must stop the spread and interpretation or activities that deviate from the core of Islamic teachings," the decree’s text said.

The Ahmadis refuse to accept the Prophet Mohammad as Islam’s final prophet, and say their founder is a prophet and messiah.

Moderates in predominantly Muslim Indonesia have criticised the government for not taking a tougher stance on militant Islamic groups after outbreaks of violence over religious issues have become more common in recent months.

Militant Muslim groups have attacked mosques and buildings associated with Ahmadiyya. Estimates of the number of its Indonesian followers vary from 200,000 to two million.

An Ahmadiyya spokesman noted that the group had not been disbanded and said it hoped there would be no more violence. "They said we cannot conduct activities against Islam. We never do any activities that are against Islam," said Shamsir Ali, adding the group was meeting with its lawyer over its interpretation of the decree.

In the latest show of force by hardline Muslims, thousands rallied in the capital calling for the sect to be disbanded.

Some groups involved in Monday’s rally complained the latest government decree did not go far enough.

Muhammad Khaththath, secretary general of Indonesia’s Muslims Forum (FUI), told Reuters the decree could create more conflict.

"So I ask the president to quickly ban Ahmadiyya because from what I see the president is in limbo from internal and international pressures," he said.

Ismail Yusanto of Muslim group Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia also felt authorities had not acted strongly enough.

"We appreciate the government’s move in issuing a decree, it’s just that we feel it hasn’t touched the substance of the Ahmadiyya issue," Yusanto said.

Indonesia has a secular constitution and most Muslims follow a moderate form of the faith. Pancasilia, Indonesia’s official ideology, also stresses religious tolerance and unity.

Analysts say Yudhoyono, whose coalition government depends on the support of some Islamic parties and who is expected to seek a second term next year, should have been much tougher in cracking down on groups that incite violence. (Writing by Ed Davies; Editing by Jerry Norton)

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