11/07/2014, 00.00
INDONESIA
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New government to make religious freedom and minority protection a priority

by Mathias Hariyadi
After years of abuse and violence under President Yudhoyono, the new head of state Jokowi and his government announce changes. Religious Affairs minister plans to adopt new legislation "within six months" to remove barriers to freedom of worship by non-Muslims. Interior minister plans to remove religious affiliation from identity papers.

Jakarta (AsiaNews) - After years of abuse, violence, and marginalisation by the Sunni majority under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Indonesia's new government has decided to protect the religious freedom of all Indonesian citizens.

The newly elected head of state, Joko "Jokowi" Widodo, and his government, especially the Interior and the Religious Affairs ministers, want to protect the freedom of all minority groups - Shias, Ahmadis, Protestants, Catholics and atheists - in the world's most populous Muslim country.

As they fend off attacks from Muslim fundamentalists, President Jokowi and his team already embody a new message of hope in Indonesia after less than a month on the job.

Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim has taken the first step towards genuine religious freedom. Last week, he announced a series of reforms that would remove barriers to the free practice of religion for non-Muslim communities.

A new law, meant to protect minority groups from extremist attacks and provocations, should be ready "within six months" and ensure that all citizens have the same "rights in matters of religion enshrined in the Constitution of 1945 ".

This is very different from his predecessor Suryadharma Ali, who is currently under investigation for bribery over permits and licenses relating to the Hajj. During his term in office, he opposed Muslims groups he deemed "illegitimate", like Ahmadis and Shias.

The Religious Affairs minister's future law would instead ensure a more streamlined process, making it easier for non-Muslims to obtain building permits for their places of worship.

At the same time, Interior Minister Tjahjo Kumolo has proposed changed to identity card Indonesians use, removing religious affiliation.

Until now six religions were officially recognised, namely Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Taoism and Buddhism.

This list was introduced under the dictatorship of General Suharto (1967-1998), who fought the country's Communist (and atheist) movement by adopting a law that required people to choose a religious affiliation.

Yesterday, the new minister Kumolo said that citizens would no longer be required to include their religion in their identity papers, a decision that has angered Muslim fundamentalists.

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