Rights groups rap treatment of Indonesian sect Gafatar

JAKARTA (AFP) – Indonesia has relocated more than 1,500 members of a controversial sect from their village “for their own safety”, an official said on Wednesday (Jan 27), but rights groups described their treatment as religious persecution.

Members of the mysterious Light of Nusantara Movement – or Gafatar – have been moved from a remote communal farm in Indonesia’s half of Borneo island after a mob attack.

They are now in the country’s main island of Java undergoing “rehabilitation” instruction sessions on Islam and civic duties.  

Meanwhile, followers of a separate minority group face ejection from their community unless they convert to mainstream Islam, according to Human Rights Watch.

Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, is seen as largely tolerant and pluralist. But a number of high-profile attacks against minority groups in recent years has marred this image.

The controversy surrounding Gafatar, a group accused of luring followers from across Indonesia to practise a deviant blend of the Muslim faith, has captivated national attention despite its tiny following in a country of 250 million.

Last week an angry mob torched their village base in Kalimantan, displacing roughly 500 families – more than 1,500 people. They were evacuated by the government authorities first to temporary shelters then back to Indonesia’s main island of Java, some by warship.

A spokesman for President Joko Widodo said the decision was made “for their own safety” and several government departments had been instructed to handle the crisis.  

“We must protect our citizens regardless of their identity. They are also Indonesian citizens,” spokesman Johan Budi told AFP.  

Gafatar insists that it does not practise deviant Islam. The country’s top clerical body, the Indonesia Ulema Council (MUI), is expected to rule next month on whether its beliefs are heretical.

Anyone charged with heresy under Indonesian law can face five years in prison, said Human Rights Watch researcher Andreas Harsono.

The police have said they are investigating any criminal links to the Gafatar movement.  The evacuees in Java have begun what officials are calling “rehabilitation” sessions on religion and civic duty, some run by the MUI.  The classes are expected to last five days and include special instruction for women and children and those deemed “ideologues” within the Gafatar movement, said Central Java MUI chairman Ahmad Daroji.  

“We are teaching them to come back and be one of us again. We hope after the programme these people can return to their community,” he told AFP.  

Several local rights groups, including the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute and the Setara Institute, have criticised the treatment of Gafatar.  “It is religious persecution,” Mr Harsono told AFP. “This re-education programme is simply an abuse of human rights.”

Meanwhile a community of Ahmadis – a minority Muslim sect – living in Indonesia’s west has allegedly been ordered to convert to mainstream Sunni Islam or face expulsion, Human Rights Watch said.

The New York-based rights group says the local government is conspiring with religious groups to harass and “unlawfully expel” the small cluster of Ahmadi families from Bangka island off Sumatra.

Ahmadis have long been targeted by hardline groups in Indonesia, who oppose their belief that a lesser prophet followed Mohammed.

In 2011 a mob beat three Ahmadis to death in an attack captured on video and widely circulated. Adherents are frequently harassed and prevented from praying at mosques.