Pusad Paramadina data on Religious Harmony Forums (FKUB) shows many communities are quite capable of discussing and managing religious difference. Photo by Feri Purnama for Antara.


The Religious Affairs Ministry must immediately reconsider plans to involve the Indonesian Military (TNI) in managing religious harmony. On 1 July, Religious Affairs Ministry spokesman Oman Fathurahman said that the TNI would advocate “moderation” in the practice of religion, and would encourage Religious Harmony Forums (FKUB) to work with TNI to promote religious harmony.

This plan betrays the spirit of reformasi, which has encouraged communities to resolve religious tensions in a communal manner. The involvement of the TNI will drag Indonesia back to the New Order. Under Soeharto, all types of conflict – which can be healthy and a sign of maturity when resolved successfully – were crushed by the iron fist of the state, that is, by the armed forces.

Although it contains significant weaknesses, one of the most important laws on religious conflict passed in the reform era is the 2006 regulation commonly referred to as the “joint ministerial decree on houses of worship”. Notably, its full title is “Guide for Regional Heads and Deputy Heads in Managing Religious Harmony, Empowering Religious Harmony Forums and the Construction of Houses of Worship”. The role of regional governments (assisted by FKUBs at the district or municipal level) in protecting religious harmony is the key to how this regulation works.

In his previous role in the Indonesian Council of Ulama (MUI), Vice President Ma’ruf Amin was witness to convoluted debates around this decree before it was passed. They involved representatives of all official religions. Consensus was prioritised, and there was no unilateral government decision as was usually the case under the New Order.

After nearly 15 years of implementation, the shortcomings of the 2006 decree are obvious. But the answer is not to be found in letting the army take over implementation.

The Religious Affairs Ministry, which is led by retired military general Fachrul Razi, partnered with TNI to promote religious moderation in 2019. But the fact that the TNI has collaborated with the ministry in the past is no reason to scale up its involvement in civilian affairs like this. The government needs to explain the reasoning behind its decision, and the public must have an opportunity to debate its merits.

Pusad Paramadina has collected data on 167 FKUB in 24 provinces, 33 cities and 110 districts. This comprises about 30% of the 548 FKUBs across the country. Over the past decade, Pusad has also partnered with FKUBs in several regions. Our research suggests several reasons why the government needs to reconsider its plan.

Communal deliberations at the grassroots

Managing community harmony democratically is a major challenge for Indonesia. The violent conflicts that marked transition to democracy in places like Poso and Ambon subsided in the early 2000s. Since then, religious tensions have continued across the country, but have only sporadically flared up into open violence. The worst conflicts have been sectarian (intra-religious) conflicts, like the anti-Shi’a attacks in Sampang, East Java, or the anti-Ahmadiyah attack in Cikeusik, Banten. Meanwhile, inter-religious conflicts have generally been about houses of worship (churches, mosques, or temples).

The joint ministerial decree contains detailed provisions on the construction of houses of worship. One key condition is that groups that want to build or renovate a place of worship must first obtain a written recommendation from the district/municipal FKUB, not the FKUB at the provincial level. The basis for this is clear: conflict occurs at the grassroots, so resolution should occur there too and be led by members of the community, with facilitation from the local government.

Under the New Order, there was no room for community participation in this way. The regulation at the time, Joint Ministerial Decree No. 1 of 1969 (which was replaced by the 2006 decree), used a security approach and strongly emphasised public order. In practice, communities wanting to build a place of worship had to obtain a recommendation from the Special Territorial Administrator (Pelaksana Khusus Daerah, Laksusda), an extension of the authoritarian regime.

Why has the decision to involve the TNI come now? Does the government consider the community is no longer capable of managing diversity by itself? Our data on FKUB certainly does not support this view.

Most (89%) of 143 district/municipal level FKUBs (including FKUB Jakarta) have received requests for a recommendation to build a house of worship. Most (82.5%) relied on the 90:60 provision in the 2006 decree as the requirement for issuing the recommendation. This controversial provision states that applicants must obtain the signatures of 90 members of the relevant religious group and the 60 people from the local area. The FKUBs that relied on this provision were required to verify the identities of people whose signatures were collected. On top of this, 57% of FKUBs also met up to three times before making a decision.

The FKUBs that issued the greatest number of recommendations were FKUB Surakarta (Solo) (396 requests, all granted), FKUB Bekasi city (188 requests, 178 granted), and FKUB Purbalingga (163 requests, 161 granted). Each FKUB not only held deliberations among its members, but actively facilitated committee members to reach out to the community to seek support. This was accompanied by supportive local government policies, such as discounts on fees for building permits (Solo) or tax relief so that established houses of worship without building permits were not subject to retrospective fees when their building permits were finally processed (Kulon Progo).

These examples show that communities want to discuss religious difference and are capable of doing so. FKUB Solo even granted hundreds of recommendations. According to the representatives of the local FKUB, they took this stance because when President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo was mayor of Solo, he actively sought to ensure all houses of worship had a building permit, and helped to process them.

Our study also revealed interesting data from Depok. For three consecutive periods, the region has been led by a mayor associated with the Islam-based Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), yet more than 40 churches were built. According to the general secretary of the Indonesian Communion of Churches (PGI) in Depok, this was because community consultations were able to dispel myths and lack of knowledge. He said many Muslims assumed that Christians can attend any church (as is generally the case with Muslims and mosques), while the Christian community explained that different denominations needed their own churches.

Will good practices like these be maintained if the TNI is involved in managing religious harmony? Two decades after reformasi, will local communities again be treated as immature adults incapable of resolving their own problems?

Learning from best practices

Of course, community consultations like those described above don’t always produce satisfactory results. Sometimes minorities are pressured into accepting the views of the majority. This can mean, for example, that Christians in Muslim-majority areas or Muslims in Christian-majority areas face difficulty building houses of worship. A version of “harmony” might be achieved but it is an enforced harmony that involves violation of the rights of minority citizens.

Although the number of cases where this occurs is small for a large country like Indonesia, these cases can still damage religious harmony. The numbers are small, not unimportant. But the sensitive nature of religious difference in Indonesia often means that there is no open discussion on the successes and failures of FKUB in managing religious tension.

It is important to understand when and where communal discussion and deliberation is successful. It is vital to record not just the failures, but also the successes, so that they can be learned from. Perhaps TNI could assist in this process, but it does not need to interfere any further.

Some 21% of the FKUBs in our study have never received a request for a recommendation on constructing a house of worship. The FKUBs recorded as rejecting the most requests were FKUB Lampung Utara (47 requests, 38 rejected), FKUB Sukoharjo (52 requests, 21 rejected), and FKUB Kuningan (5 requests, 5 rejected).

These FKUBs are located in regions that are homogenous in terms of religion. In regions like these, serious efforts need to be made to strengthen awareness that Indonesia is not a religious state and democracy is not the same thing as majoritarianism.

According to the Ministry of Home Affairs, as at April 2020, there are six districts where FKUBs have never been established. Notably, these are districts that are religiously homogenous, and include majority Muslim or majority Christian populations: Tanah Datar and Pesisir Selatan (West Sumatra), Pucak Jaya, Dogiyai and Nduga (Papua), and Pegunungan Arfak (West Papua). The decision not to establish an FKUB is likely a conscious one by the local government. Approaching the 2012 regional head elections in Sampang district, the incumbent district head said: “As long as I am head of Sampang district, an FKUB will never be established here, because its function is to issue licences to build churches. This conflicts with ‘local wisdom’!”

It is regrettable that these worst-case examples are being copied in other regions – either for “payback” or because of politicisation at the local level. For example, certain Muslim communities in Aceh and West Java have refused to allow the construction of churches because there are Christian communities in Papua that have rejected the construction of mosques. Likewise, some Christian communities in East Nusa Tenggara have not allowed the construction of mosques because of the difficulties faced by Christians in Bogor or Bekasi. Rather than community deliberation and tolerance, the emphasis is on threats and revenge.

The most common reason FKUBs give for refusing a request is ‘incomplete requirements’ (39%). But there are many requests that are rejected because they have sparked community tension or backlash, even if they do meet administrative requirements (10%), as occurred, for example, with FKUB Kutai Timur. In these cases, local government or law enforcement officials usually bow to public pressure, despite what the regulation says.

Religious tension and conflict intersects with other concerns, such as the politicisation of FKUBs approaching elections, the limited possibilities religious groups have to interact in daily life, and economic disparities and jealousy. These problems are part of the dynamics of democracy across Indonesia; they cannot be resolved by FKUBs alone.

A central FKUB?

On the back of the Ministry of Religious Affairs’ announcement, Minister of Home Affairs Tito Karnavian announced a plan to establish a central FKUB. This plan should also be reconsidered. Apart from adding another layer of counter-productive bureaucracy, it would undo one of the key gains of the democratic era – the recognition that local governments better understand local problems.

Establishing a central FKUB also might end up encouraging local FKUB to simply refer their problems up to the national level, rather than resolving issues themselves. The protracted conflicts in Sampang, East Java and over the Yasmin church in Bogor are just two examples of how taking problems to the national level can make them harder to resolve.

Indonesia still faces many problems with religious harmony. But this is no reason to resort to the heavy-handed tactics used under the New Order. Indonesia has many good experiences of managing religious harmony in the democratic era, as President Jokowi showed when he was in Solo. As a mature nation, we recognise that some degree of conflict is unavoidable, but we should be able to manage it peacefully, as adults.

If we are not able to manage religious difference, that means that our democracy is not mature enough, and we need to take efforts to strengthen it. We should be duplicating our good experiences of democratic practice as much as possible, not killing democracy by getting the military involved.


This article was originally published in Indonesian by Tirto.id as “Pelibatan TNI dalam Soal Kerukunan Beragama Mengkhianati Reformasi.” It has been translated with permission of the author and Tirto.id.


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