June 8th 2021 | Andreas Harsono | Humans Rights Watch

Hundreds of Muslims in Indonesia this week demanded that the local government in Sraten village, East Java, stop the Muhammadiyah congregation from building a mosque. The protest prompted the village head to order the construction halted until the Muhammadiyah group obtained a building permit. But the issue wasn’t about building construction requirements, but about freedom of religion and belief.

Muhammadiyah is the second-largest Muslim organization in Indonesia, with around 30 million followers. But the proposed mosque is in an area dominated by the Nahdlatul Ulama, the largest Muslim group, with an estimated 80 million followers. Their rivalry, based on both religious and political differences, goes back decades.

Mohammad Ali Saifudin, a protest leader, told the media, “The construction of the Muhammadiyah mosque is very disturbing. The Nahdlatul Ulama congregation opposes it.”

Such problems began arising in 2006 when the Indonesian government under President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono issued a regulation dedicated to “Religious Harmony, Empowering Religious Harmony Forums, and Constructing Houses of Worship.” That regulation opened the way for a majority religious group in an area to effectively veto minority religious groups from constructing houses of worship – infringing on the rights to freedom of religion and belief recognized under international human rights law. Now the regulation is being used to pit Muslims against other Muslims.

Many militant Islamist groups cited the regulation in their efforts to close down thousands of Christian churches in Muslim-dominated provinces across Indonesia. It was also used to clamp down on other religious minorities such as Ahmadis, Hindus, Buddhists, and native faith believers. Indonesia’s Ministry of Religious Affairs has failed to record how many houses of worship have been forced to close down, or have been blocked in the building stage, since 2006.

Blocking the construction of the Muhammadiyah mosque should remind Indonesia’s government that this discriminatory regulation should be revised so that it meets international human rights standards. Religious freedoms in Indonesia will remain imperiled so long as it remains on the books.