Last month, there were at least three major conflicts involving houses of worship across Indonesia.
In East Java, residents protested plans for a new church in Ponorogo, and plans for a Muhammadiyah mosque in Banyuwangi. And in West Java, the longstanding controversy over the construction of the Yasmin church in Bogor entered a new chapter: church leaders rejected the city government’s offer of land for the church’s relocation, instead demanding that a Supreme Court decision allowing the church to be built be upheld.
At the same time, the central government said it planned to replace a law that governs these issues – and is partly responsible for them. A presidential regulation (Perpres) is now being drafted by the Religious Affairs Ministry to replace the 2006 Joint Ministerial Decision on the establishment and operation of houses of worship.
The 2006 Decision was justified as an effort to accommodate regional autonomy, improve legal certainty, and provide a new avenue for the resolution of disputes – local Religious Harmony Forums (FKUB). But conflicts centred on houses of worship have instead increased. The problems stem from the fact that the Decision was created without sufficient input from religious leaders and has been inconsistently implemented by local governments.
The new Perpres offers a chance for change, but this will only happen if lessons are drawn from the failures of the past, and leaders commit to a more consistent, inclusive, and harmonious legal process.
Since the introduction of the 2006 Decision, the construction of many houses of worship has been stalled by resistance from local residents, including discriminatory intervention by local leaders. Research by the Setara Institute has found that from 2007 (when the Decision was first implemented) to 2018, there were as many as 398 incidents of religious conflict targeting houses of worship.
Conflict has taken the form of physical closure of buildings, prevention of their use for worship, and even outright intimidation of worshippers. The greatest number of disturbances involved churches (199 incidents), followed by mosques (133 incidents). Unfortunately, the data do not show exactly how many houses of worship were affected, as a single church or mosque may have experienced more than one disturbance.
Through my own desk research at the Center for the Study of Religion and Democracy at Paramadina University (PUSAD Paramadina), I have gathered data on the number of cases of disturbance relating to the establishment of houses of worship from January 2015 to December 2020. This was the period in which local governments were made aware of, and adopted, the 2006 Decision. My sources include decisions of the State Administrative Court (PTUN), information from Religious Harmony Forums (FKUB) in various regions, and searches through newspapers and online news portals.
I found at least 122 cases of local communities resisting the construction of houses of worship, from 2015 to 2020, although it is likely the real number exceeds the number of cases I could find. Around 60% of these cases involved churches (48% Protestant and 12% Catholic), while 28% of cases involved mosques, and the remaining 12% involved Buddhist, Hindu, or Confucian temples.
Aside from sparking inter-religious conflict, the 2006 Decision also appears to have stirred intra-religious conflict, with increasing Islamic sectarianism over the same period.
The majority of cases targeting mosques focused on those said to be run by Salafi-Wahhabi Muslims (9 cases), followed by those suspected of teaching “deviant” sects, such as Ahmadiyah and Dakwah Islam Indonesia (6 cases). Mainstream organisations Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama each experienced just one case of resistance against the construction of a mosque for their communities.
Conflict was related partly to the way the Decision was implemented on the ground by local governments. A lack of clear directions on practical implementation of the Decision has resulted in local governments interpreting it inconsistently, and at times in ways that are informed by local prejudices.
I found three types of regulations at the local level related to the implementation of the 2006 decree.
The first type are basically copy-paste documents, using exactly the same words as the central government Decision. This is the type found in the case of the Yasmin church in Bogor, where a provincial regulation follows the national decree in directing conflict resolution to either the State Administrative Court (PTUN) or relocation of the house of worship. There is no clause obliging local leaders to follow a decision of the court, leaving relocation as an open option – in this case, sparking extended conflict. This is despite the fact that court decisions obviously have authority in their own right and should be implemented by government.
The second type of local regulation mostly follows the lead of the central government, but has additional clauses that make it more difficult to establish a new house of worship, for example, by requiring the support of local residents within a 200-metre radius. This often makes it harder for minority religions faced with prejudice or religious intolerance to gain permits. This type has been adopted by the city of Malang, East Java, and Jakarta.
The third type of local regulation has some of the content of the national Decision, but also lots of new clauses that provide greater legal clarity on permit processes, and better mechanisms for conflict resolution. This is the best of all the types I found in my research, although unfortunately, there are not many of them. They were limited to the city of Surakarta (Solo), the district of Kulonprogo in Central Java, and the city of Kupang in East Nusa Tenggara.
The drafting of a new Perpres by the Religious Affairs Ministry is an opportunity for Minister Yaqut Cholil Qoumas to improve governance of religious harmony in Indonesia. Incidentally, the minister is a former chair of the NU-affiliated Ansor Youth Movement, an organisation that frequently takes the side of minority religions.
Yaqut could start by inviting government institutions, religious leaders, and civil society to the table. He could also take into account the results of studies such as an evaluation of the Decision by the National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM), research by PUSAD Paramadina on the role of Religious Harmony Forums (FKUB) in its implementation, and annual reports from the Setara Institute on the State of Religious Freedom in Indonesia.
The data are there – now Minister Yaqut needs to find the courage make the necessary changes, regardless of who will try to resist them.