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Limitations to Religious Freedom in the Era of the COVID-19 Pandemic

  July 24th 2020

Banners announcing worship activities at the Mosqe in Bali were removed during COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo by: Fikri Yusuf/ANTARA FOTO)

The COVID-19 pandemic is a public health issue with many dimensions, affecting many daily activities, including religious rituals and festivals. Especially in Indonesia, where religion plays a significant public role, a number of government policies on COVID-19 specifically target religious communities. Religious organizations and houses of worship are affected by the policies, but also actively respond to the difficulties dues to the pandemic.

That issue is addressed by a recent research-based report published by ICRS, CRCS (Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies, Universitas Gadjah Mada) and the Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation (Yayasan Lembaga Bantuan Hukum Indonesia). The report is titled Limitations to Freedom of Religion or Belief in the Era of the Covid-19 Pandemic in Indonesia, co-authored by Suhadi (UIN Sunan Kalijaga), Zainal Abidin Bagir (Director of ICRS UGM), Renata Arianingtias, and Asfinawati. The authors had previously co-written a report and a journal article on limitations to freedom of religion or belief in Indonesia. The new report looks at the many dimensions related to the impact of the restrictive regulations to contain the spread of COVID-19 on freedom of religion or belief and the responses of religious organizations.

On Friday, July 10, 2020, ICRS, CRCS and YLBHI hosted an online launching and discussion of thereport Suhadi and Zainal presented the findings of the research, followed by comments from Kamaruddin Amin (Ministry of Religious Affairs), Irma Hidayani (Koalisi Warga Lapor COVID-19), and Choirul Anam (National Commission of Human Rights, Komnas HAM).

In his presentation, Bagir shared that the research on limitations to religious freedom was motivated by the fact that certain health protocols (and PSBB or large-scale social restrictions) in response to the pandemic limited many social activities. There was a concern that pandemic restrictions provided the government with far-reaching powers which were then used as tools for the repression of or discrimination toward certain groups in society. The researches questions for this study are (1) what is the goal of the social restrictions? (2) how do religious institutions respond to the restrictions? (3) how is religious freedom limited during the pandemic?

Bagir highlighted the constitutional and legal frameworks which regulate social restrictions in Indonesia. He mentioned that in the Indonesian Constitution of 1945, Article 28J, limitations to freedom is permissible only for the sole purpose of guaranteeing the recognition of others, to protect public morals, religious values, security, and public order in the context of a democratic society. There is no reference to public health concerns as grounds for limitation. However, in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ratified by Law No. 12 of 2005), public health is regarded as a ground of limitations. The issue of public health is also found in Law No. 24 of 2007 about disaster management and Law No. 6 of 2018 about health quarantines. The report appreciates the fact that Indonesia already had laws regarding health-related quarantines prior to the pandemic, and therein should be better prepared to manage the society in order to overcome the pandemic.

Furthermore, the Ministry of Health also issued Regulation No.9 of 2020 about guidelines of large-scale social restrictions to accelerate the relief of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this regulation, it is explained that large-scale social restrictions also regulate religious activities. In Part D of this regulation, it is clearly explained that (1) all houses of worship should be closed, (2) all religious activities should follow the guidelines from government as regulated by law and religious authorities, (3) religious activities which are held in the home may be attended by a limited number of persons with physical distancing, and (4) funerals for people who did not die because of COVID-19 may be attended by family but not more than 20 people.

In his presentation, Suhadi explored the data showing that since March 2, 2020, when President Joko Widodo announced the first case of COVID-19 in Indonesia, religious communities were quick to respond to the situation. However, according to Suhadi, at that time some religious communities’ response to COVID-19 was affected by religious interpretations of the virus’ origins. For example, one Muslim preacher said that the COVID-19 pandemic is God’s army set upon the government of China to avenge the repression of Muslim Uighurs. From the Christian side, there was a priest who said that COVID-19 is a biological weapon to attack other countries. This Christian priest also forbid his congregation to take COVID-19 tests, because he argued that the Church has a better treatment to cure people who are affected by the virus.

Contrary to the above responses, and in line with the government regulations and social restrictions, many official religious institutions, like PBNU, Muhammadiyah, PGI, and KWI, also made official statements regarding the importance of large-scale social restrictions which included restrictions on certain religious activities. However, it is clear that there were many large religious celebrations between the months of March and May including the Ascension of the Prophet Muhammad (March 22), Bali’s Day of Silence and Hindu New Year (March 25), Good Friday and Easter Sunday (April, 10 and 12), Waisak Day (May, 7), Ascension Day of Jesus Christ (May, 21), and Idul Fitri (May 24-25). These important religious events became a challenge for large-scale social restrictions in areas like Sidoarjo and Makassar, for example, where congregations still conducted Tarawih prayer in mosques resulting in the spread of COVID-19 in these areas. The need for religious institutions and authorities to remind their members to observe social and physical distancing, by limiting religious activity (e.g. forbidding Eid prayers at the mosque) is clear. Problems also came from the government, who loosened transportation regulations ahead of Eid. The government’s allowance of markets and malls to remain open or reopen also incited protests from Front Pembela Islam who argued that mosques should likewise be allowed to open. To sum up, Dr. Suhadi finds that the responses toward PSBB are more varied among the Muslim community when compared to other religious communities in Indonesia. 

After two presentations from the report’s authors, respondents offered their commentary. The first respondent was Dr. Kamaruddin Amin from the Ministry of Religious Affairs, who suggested to include a few other issues which are not discussed in the report, such as the issues of registration of marriage in the religious affairs office. He elaborated on three directive letters from the Minister of Religious Affairs related to the COVID-19 pandemic and religious activities. The first letter suggested that all religious activities related to Ramadan and Eid should be conducted in the home. Secondly, related to the loosening of large-scale social restrictions by the government, society should continue to obey the health protocols. The third letter, issued on June 30, 2020, related to Eid al-Adha. The letter stated that Eid al-Adha observances may be conducted as usual except in areas where the situation is critical. Furthermore, Amin also explained that the Minister of Religious Affairs staff communicated extensively with religious institutions encouraging their support of the government to overcome the spread of COVID-19.

Irma Hidayani, as the second respondent, emphasized the underreporting of COVID-19 cases in Indonesia. The so-called underreported cases are positive cases that are not recognized by the government due to limited test kits and human resource shortages.  Partnering with journalists, scientists, epidemiologists, and sociologists, Irma built ‘Koalisi Warga Lapor COVID-19’ as a forum for the society to report COVID-19 cases. One aspect which became a concern of this forum is that to determine whether large-scale social restrictions, including religious activities, can be relaxed or not should be based on accountable data. According to her, the data produced by government at present is less trustworthy and, therefore, it is not sufficient to be the basis of relaxation of the regulations related to restriction of social and religious activities.

Choirul Anam from the National Commission of Human Rights also argued his concerns with the issue of religious life in the era of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to him, this research is pivotal because there is the potential that the governance paradigm places more interest in the economy than on public health. All parties, including religious institutions, should support the government by obeying health protocols. However, they should also be critical if there are regulations which result in repression.

To watch the recording of the discussion, click: