Indonesia's minorities hope for a safer future under Jokowi

Mr Iskandar Gumay (centre), cleric of Indonesia's minority Ahmadi Muslim community, leads prayers at the al-Hidayah mosque in Jakarta on Jan 21, 2015. Members of the Ahmadi sect, along with other minorities such as Shi'ites and Christians, have faced
Mr Iskandar Gumay (centre), cleric of Indonesia's minority Ahmadi Muslim community, leads prayers at the al-Hidayah mosque in Jakarta on Jan 21, 2015. Members of the Ahmadi sect, along with other minorities such as Shi'ites and Christians, have faced persecution, but a law being drafted under President Joko Widodo's administration shows the Indonesian leader is committed to tackling religious intolerance. -- PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AFP) - Indonesian Ahmadis are no strangers to persecution, with attacks and discrimination rife, but leader Iskandar Gumay hopes better days are ahead for the minority Muslim sect under President Joko Widodo.

The cleric has witnessed attempts to torch his mosque and seen worshippers elsewhere prevented from burying their dead, however he believes a draft law shows Indonesia's leader is committed to tackling religious intolerance.

Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation, has seen its image as tolerant and pluralist suffer due to a spike in religious violence. As well as Ahmadis, minority Muslim Shi'ites and Christians have been targeted in the Sunni-majority country.

The Indonesian constitution guarantees freedom of religion. Six faiths are officially recognised - Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. But this has not stopped attacks, and Ahmadis in particular have been targeted by hardline groups who oppose the sect's belief that a lesser prophet followed Prophet Muhammad.

Mr Gumay says Ahmadis are sometimes denied ID cards, while his sister was refused a marriage certificate because the authorities claimed she was not a Muslim.

Just west of Jakarta, his fellow Ahmadis have faced much worse, with three adherents of the sect brutally murdered by a mob in 2011 as police stood by.

Mr Gumay believes the new president faces a challenge addressing this scourge but is confident Mr Joko, a reformist who has pledged to defend religious minorities, is up to the task.

"If the spirit of Jokowi... comes down through the government to the people, I think things will get better," he told AFP, referring to the president by his common nickname.

The new legislation, expected to go before parliament in April, is an ambitious step towards bolstering protection.

The Bill, which is still being drafted, will guarantee religious minorities protection from persecution, the head of research in the ministry of religious affairs, Mr Abdurrahman Mas'ud told AFP.

It will outlaw the destruction of houses of worship and aim to offer protection not just to those whose religions are recognised under the constitution, but all minorities.

The law is being pushed by new Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin, who has been praised for his progressive attitude.

Many different belief systems are practised in Indonesia, from animism to those that mix aspects of Islam with local tribal customs, although more than 90 per cent of Indonesians describe themselves as Muslim on their ID cards.

In another move that won praise, the new government recently ended the requirement for people to select one of the officially recognised religions on their cards, instead allowing them to put nothing.

The new approach is a stark contrast to Mr Joko's predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

He was criticised for inaction on hardline groups during his 10-year tenure, and for remaining quiet as politicians rammed through changes that activists claimed were a backwards step for religious freedom.

Strict new approval processes for houses of worship ushered in in 2006 prompted the closure of hundreds of churches, while another ministerial decree two years later that outlawed the spread of Ahmadiyah teachings prompted an increase in attacks against the sect.

The courts meanwhile took a soft approach to perpetrators of religious violence, with the accused often given light sentences or going unprosecuted altogether.

Twelve men charged with beating the three Ahmadis to death in 2011 were given sentences of three to six months, despite the entire grisly incident being captured on video and widely circulated throughout the country.

Persecution has continued in recent years, with regular reports of minority Muslims and Christians being targeted.

While there is optimism about the new government's approach, there is also much scepticism in a country with a poor record on protecting minorities.

Even if the law gets through Parliament, some are concerned that local authorities in the sprawling archipelago, where power is heavily decentralised, may continue to pass discriminatory bylaws that enable persecution.

Others question Mr Joko's long-term committment to helping minorities.

"With the focus on economic development, ideas that are in the long term important, like religious freedom and human rights, will be put on the back burner by the Jokowi government," Mr Tobias Basuki, from think-tank the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, told AFP.