Saturday, October 29, 2005

Govt called on to deal with religious sects wisely

JAKARTA POST | Headline News -- October 29, 2005
Govt called on to deal with religious sects wisely

Hera Diani and Slamet Susanto, The Jakarta Post/Jakarta/Yogyakarta

Heretical, schmeretical! We have been hearing a lot of such accusations directed lately against, for instance, the imam who led Islamic ritual prayers in the Indonesian language, or against the Ahmadiyah congregation.

And now, the finger has been pointed at followers of Mahdi, a religious sect leader living near Palu, Central Sulawesi, who has allegedly asked his followers not to practice some of the tenants of Islam or Christianity.

Din Syamsuddin, chairman of the nation's second largest Muslim organization Muhammadiyah, quickly branded the Mahdi sect "blasphemous and misleading", and urged the government to supervise and to assist the sect followers.

They are people with low educational backgrounds, live in an isolated mountainous area and are financially repressed, he said, presumably as a way of explanation for their chosen beliefs.

He also called on a group calling itself the team of religious faith monitoring (PAKEM) to improve their work.

"Indonesia has a vast area with a diverse population. It creates a very wide access for any religious faith. We have to be very wise in taking care of it," Din, also deputy chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), said in Yogyakarta on Friday.

He did, however, say that he regretted the deadly clash between police and Mahdi's followers on Tuesday, in which five people were killed -- three officers and two sect members.

The clash occurred as 16 police officers went to the mountainous Gawalise area outside of Palu city to try to question Mahdi and they met strong resistance from his followers.

Reports about several officers being held hostage prompted Central Sulawesi Police to launch a large operation against the group, with over 300 heavily armed men assisted by a helicopter.

Three police officers were later found alive with serious injuries on Thursday, while around 100 sect followers surrendered to police as the search for Mahdi commenced.

Another Muslim scholar Komaruddin Hidayat said that heretical stigmatization of slightly different groups should be avoided because no person or group has the right to judge others as blasphemous.

"What are the criteria for religious deviation? Because corruption is also another form of deviance," said the Islamic studies professor from the Syarif Hidayatullah Islamic State University (UIN).

Religious splinter groups and cults, Komaruddin said, can also be triggered by poverty, low education and a feeling of not being accommodated or served by the government.

He said the government should have asked the Mahdi followers for a dialog first, as it could have prevented the clash.

"The government should have been pro-active and held discussions with the followers. The government should have approached them nicely instead of confronting them with a platoon of police."

Islamic jurisprudence scholar Siti Musdah Mulia accused the government of violating the Constitution by detaining people it perceived as religiously heretical.

"As long as any religious group does not commit violence or force others to follow their precepts, the government should let them be free. The state should even protect them," said Musdah, who is secretary-general of the Indonesian Conference for Religion and Peace (ICRP).

The government, Musdah said, has been taking a discriminatory stance by only recognizing five religions, while there are so many other "local" religions spread across the country (and the world).

"Let people choose their own beliefs, because that is a personal matter. There are so many problems in this country, like poverty, that the government should focus on those things to resolve them instead."

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