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Not Muslim? Not Christian? Not accepted

Dewi Kanti's identity card now says that she is "kepercayaan" - or a traditional believer. For more than 10 years, the 37-year-old housewife's religion was listed as Muslim. (ST PHOTO: ZAKIR HUSSAIN)

Publication Date : 11-03-2013


Indonesia's 'traditional believers' are seeking recognition and equality


Dewi Kanti, 37, has known only one faith all her life. But it has never been recorded on her identity card.

She follows Sunda Wiwitan, a traditional folk belief indigenous to West and Central Java that incorporates meditation and thanksgiving rituals, among other things.

But when she was 17, the registration official automatically listed her as Muslim.

It took more than a decade before she could replace that space on her identity card with a dash, and later, traditional believer.

The housewife from Kuningan, West Java, now campaigns for the right of those with minority beliefs like hers - practised here centuries before Islam, Christianity, Buddhism or Hinduism - to iden-tify themselves accurately and openly.

"Our ancestors, followers of the original religions of this country, let new religions sink roots," Dewi said.

"But now they are expanding freely, followers of these religions disregard and even try to wipe out our beliefs."

This quest for recognition and equality comes as incidents of discrimination and violence against religious minorities have increased in recent years, denting Indonesia's reputation as a tolerant nation. Civil society and human rights groups recorded more than 250 cases last year, including attacks on churches and Shi'ite and Ahmadiyya Muslims.

Muslim groups such as the Wahid Institute have also expressed concern at these violations. Culprits are lightly punished or not at all.

But the plight of traditional believers like Dewi, once little heard of, is also starting to get noticed.

Human Rights Watch highlighted her case at the launch of its latest report on institutional and legal shortcomings that facilitate abuses against minorities.

Last week, think-tank Setara Institute and several minority groups, including the Coordinating Body for Indigenous Faith Organisations, or BKOK, called on the government to uphold the constitutional right to freedom of belief and review laws that discriminate against religious minorities.

Indonesia's founders explicitly recognised six religions, but many bureaucrats misinterpret this as licence to lump minority believers into one of them, despite their protests, or place a blank white stripe across the religion column on their identity cards. Many were, to their discomfort, listed as Muslim, Christian, Catholic or Hindu.

Buddhism and Confucianism are also recognised religions, with some 1.5 million and 230,000 followers respectively.

The 2010 census shows 270,000 Indonesians with their religion listed as "others", but followers of minority faiths and observers say their actual number adds up to several million. Some even consider themselves to be either Muslim or Christian, as well as traditional believer, for instance. However, many classify themselves under another religion, in order to join the army or civil service, or to avoid being discriminated against.

More troublingly, a number of these traditional believers have been convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to jail terms. For some others, the growth of radical groups is a worry.

Dian Jennie, a BKOK secretary, said several families of traditional believers in East Java had to bury their dead kin in their backyards after being turned away from nearby cemeteries for not having a religion. In one case, radicals armed with knives forced a family to dig up a freshly buried corpse, she added.

"Life for them is hard enough, but even death is difficult," said Setara director Hendardi, calling on the authorities to take tough action against abuse and violence.

The BKOK, which was formed in the late 1990s, brings together 240 traditional belief groups.

Dian, 39, who lives in Surabaya and practises Sapta Darma, a Javanese spiritual belief, told The Straits Times many face difficulties registering their marriages with local bureaucrats, who insist they pick a religion.

Their children also cite discrimination from classmates and teachers, who say they are godless.

Deputy Religious Affairs Minister Nasaruddin Umar told reporters recently the government was concerned about intolerance and was doing its best to tackle it. "One principle of all religions and traditional beliefs is the same, that is upholding peace," he said.

But Human Rights Watch deputy director Phelim Kine said lax law enforcement against perpetrators of abuse, and a government that seems reluctant to get tougher on radicals, are key problems that need to be fixed, as these send a signal that abuse and intolerance are acceptable.

Dian agreed. Ultimately, she said, the religion column on identity cards and official documents and forms should be dropped altogether. "If we are to be honest, this is a source of much discrimination and bias."


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