Reflection on Advocacy for Freedom of Religion or Belief in Indonesia 2023

18 September 2023

Written by  Maurisa Zinira

In continuation of previous efforts related to the domain of religious freedom, the Indonesian Consortium for Religious Studies (ICRS), in partnership with PUSAD Paramadina and the Council of Churches in Indonesia (PGI), organized a conference that facilitated activists and stakeholders from various institutions to share their concerns on the matter of religious freedom. The conference titled "Reflections on Advocacy on Freedom of Religion or Belief (KBB) in Indonesia 2023" took place at Wisma Pemuda PGI, Cisarua, West Java, August 22-24, 2023, and gathered over 74 attendees representing 26 provinces across Indonesia. The participants shared various narratives pertaining to their experiences in the field, participating in a reflective discourse on the progression of religious freedom advocacy in Indonesia.

This conference was designed as a joint forum to elicit cooperation in freedom of religion or belief (FoRB, Ind. KBB) advocacy.  The conference was divided into joint sessions and breakout sessions. The joint session was conducted across a six activities: (1) a presentation titled "Who Are We and Where Are We Now?" with Utami Sandyarani (PUSAD Paramadina);  (2) a discussion "KBB in the Vortex of Indonesian Democracy: Reflections on 25 Years of Reform'' with Jaleswari Pramodhawardani (KSP) and Ihsan Ali-Fauzi (PUSAD Paramadina); (3) a talk show "Celebrating Efforts to Strengthen Advocacy KBB” with Noorhalis Majid (LK3), Eko Riyadi (PUSHAM UII), Shinta Maharani (AJI), and Ferry Wirra Padang (ASB); (4) talk show: “Experience of State Institutions in Strengthening KBB. Together with Komnas HAM, Komnas Perempuan, ORI, KPAI, and LPSK; (5) a film screening of “The Indigenous'' together with Watchdoc and Samsul Maarif (CRCS-UGM); and, (6) a discussion on future recommendations.

Meanwhile, the breakout sessions were conducted on three key focal points related to the matter of religious freedom: regulation, advocacy, and community. These themes were extensively examined, with a specific focus on their implications and significance. Subsequently, the three primary themes were subdivided into six focus group discussion (FGD) themes: (1) Problems with Houses of Worship: Problems in PBM 2006, Tolerance Index, and Learning, (2) Intersectionality: Building Cross-Issue Solidarity in Strengthening the KBB Movement, (3) Cross-Generation Education in the Context of Strengthening KBB Advocacy, (4) Law no. 1 of 2023 concerning the Criminal Code: Opportunities and Challenges for Strengthening the KBB, (5) Building Solidarity with Minority Groups to Strengthen the KBB: From Victims to Survivors?, and (6) Religious Moderation Policy as an Opportunity and Challenge for KBB Advocacy.

Developments in Freedom of Religion and Belief

The current state of FoRB falls short of an optimal reality, despite some positive developments, such as legal revisions that improve minority rights. There are numerous instances of intolerance that persist, including the forced termination of religious worship conducted by a collective against the Mawar Sharon Church (GMS) congregation in Binjai, the cessation of services at the Gihon Indonesian Bethel Church (GBI) in Pekanbaru, the discontinuation of Christian religious education activities at the Indonesian Bethel Church (GBI) in West Bandung, and the incident involving the arson of a Muhammadiyah prayer hall in Bireun. In addition to the aforementioned instances, indigenous religion communities continue to be subjected to different forms of discrimination and intolerance. The freedom to conduct worship in peace continues to be impeded by a range of discriminatory rules and legislation at the regional and national levels. As the upcoming political year approaches, there is a growing concern about the potential amplification of identity politics. Additionally, the government's implementation of several reconciliation programs has simultaneously introduced potential concerns associated with societal polarization and fragmentation.

However, despite the persistence of some instances, avenues or prospects for the advancement of the FoRB are currently beginning to emerge. The regulatory phase is marked by the introduction of Law no. 1 of 2023, often known as the Criminal Code (KUHP), which entails modifications in the legislation governing criminal provisions pertaining to matters of religion. Article 300 of the revised Criminal Code in Indonesia has undergone a modification wherein it no longer specifically addresses instances of religious blasphemy. Instead, it now focuses on the prohibition of incitement and acts that demonstrate hostility towards religion, the beliefs of others, or faith-based groups in the country. Article 300 also includes indigenous believers equally with religion, so that it can be used to protect the freedoms of minority groups.

Certain articles are susceptible to being misused. According to Asfinawati, the provisions outlined in paragraphs (1) and (2) of Article 302 exhibit an inclination to limitations on the exercise of freedom of expression and speech. The term "inciting" as used in Article 302 (1) is subject to various interpretations, while paragraph (2) displays a discriminatory nature by exclusively addressing the act of "compelling an individual to abandon or alter their religion or belief system within Indonesia," thus rendering it to criminal prosecution. On the contrary, the act of forcing an individual to adopt religious beliefs does not align with the aforementioned domain.

The new criminal code contains numerous laws which remain unclear, known in Indonesian as ‘rubber laws (pasal karet).” These laws have the potential to limit FoRB, the conference participants agreed that the existing opportunities need to be utilized for future advocacy.  According to Zainal Abidin Bagir, the implementation of this positive transformation necessitates concurrent modifications in supplementary components, including revisions to the PPPA (Women's Empowerment and Child Protection) and ITE (Electronic Information and Transactions) legislations. In addition to this, it is important to establish legislation concerning derivatives, ensuring their effective application by the relevant authority, law enforcement officers, and fostering a supportive socio-political environment for the growth and development of FoRB.

Challenges and Ways Forward

Despite the growing demands for advocacy, it is undeniable that work in the field face fluctuations and challenges. In his conference introduction, Ihsan Ali Fauzi identified three key challenges facing religious freedom advocacy. Firstly, he highlighted the increasing political polarization at the national level, which has led to divisions among FoRB activists. Second, he emphasized the shrinking civic space in Indonesia, primarily due to intensified digital repression by state authorities and specific civil society factions. Lastly, he underscored the diminishing financial resources required to sustain efforts aimed at bolstering FoRB.

In addition to external issues, the task of improving advocacy also presents internal challenges for FoRB advocates. Some of them appear to have a sense of hopelessness, which can be attributed, in part, to the tendency of activists to evaluate their efforts against an idealized standard rather than through empirical comparisons with past endeavors. Indeed, through a comparative analysis using empirical evidence, the discernible progress achieved in numerous domains instills optimism for future advancements.

According to Ihsan Ali, there has been a presence of FoRB activists responsible for monitoring and documenting violations since the 2000s. Presently, there exists a forum called Sobat KBB (Friends of KBB) with the objective of fostering solidarity among victims of FoRB violations. This forum also aims to support victims in their journey towards resilience and recovery. According to Ihsan Ali, quoting Kathryn Sikking, the achievement of FoRB would require intentional and strategic efforts, rather than occurring spontaneously. Hence, the advocacy for FoRB should be conducted based on the principle of possibilism rather than probabilism.

In order to develop possible actions, this conference launched several follow-up programs. There are at least four advocacy sectors: (1) the production of knowledge, which is carried out through research and knowledge production, as well as public dissemination and education; (2) policies and fulfillment of rights are carried out through policy advocacy such as the Criminal Code, Regional Regulations, Religious Moderation, etc., as well as through case advocacy with legal assistance; (3) increasing the capacity and cadre of actors through strengthening specialists and strengthening driving educators such as women's groups, teachers, youth groups, and CSOs; and, (4) strengthening the survivor community by assisting victims, strengthening the capacity of the survivor community, dialogue, and collaboration.

In the framework of coordinating these diverse initiatives, the participants of this event reached a consensus on the necessity of establishing a collaborative office in conjunction with the FoRB advocacy network. The establishment of this office serves as a vital platform for facilitating communication among FoRB activists, enabling them to effectively discuss and strategize the implementation of their proposed programs and policies. The establishment of a collaborative platform such as this forum aims to facilitate effective communication and cooperation in the implementation of activity programs, hence fostering enhanced development of the FoRB sector.