Under the new religious education law churches will need government approval to hold Sunday school and Bible classes. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)
Under the new religious education law churches will also need government approval to hold Sunday school and Bible classes. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

Christians in Indonesia are opposing a new religious education bill that will require them to obtain government approval for holding Sunday schools or confirmation classes, reports the Catholic news site UCAN.

The draft bill prescribes that these classes can only be offered if there are at least 15 participants and the organiser has the approval of the Religious Affairs Ministry.

The draft “Islamic boarding schools and religious education” bill is aimed at regulating how schools, and also religious institutions like churches, teach religion and the government’s involvement in financing and supporting it.

“The main responsibility of the state is to protect, to ensure that every religion can propagate their activities and not regulate and restrict them,” Fr. Vinsensius Darmin Mbula, from the Education Commission at the Indonesian bishops’ conference, told UCAN.

Church leaders have emphasised that Sunday school and Bible classes are informal education activities that are an extension of church services.

“The government should limit itself to [regulate only] formal schools. For informal activities such as Sunday schools, let the churches apply their own standards,” Juventus Prima Yoris Kagoo, chairman of the Indonesia Catholic Students Association, said.

Fr. Mbula warned there was a risk that the new bill, if passed into law, could be used by hard-line religious groups to harass Christians.

Meanwhile a recent survey by the Research Centre on Islam and Society of the Islamic State University Syarif Hidayatullah (Ppim Uin) in Jakarta found that 57% of Muslim teachers in state schools and madrassas showed intolerance towards those of other faiths.

“The study fuels concern for a phenomenon that the government must fight in a serious and rapid manner,” H. Moch Qasim Mathar, professor of the Islamic State Alauddin University of Makassar (South Sulawesi), told AsiaNews.

Woman in prison for blasphemy

Last Thursday (25 October) a woman in North Sumatra lost her appeal at the High Court against her blasphemy conviction.

Meliana, a mother-of-two, will have to serve an 18-month prison sentence in Medan after she complained about the noise levels of a local mosque’s loudspeakers. The police initially did not arrest her but Islamists pressured them into taking her case to the court, reported CSW.

“The imprisonment of Meliana is a grave miscarriage of justice, and exposes the blatant misuse of the blasphemy laws,” said Benedict Rogers, CSW’s East Asia Team Leader, adding: “Intolerance in Indonesia is increasing in many ways and Indonesia’s tradition of pluralism is in grave peril.”

Indonesia’s religious minorities have been fearful that their country’s reputation for tolerance is being undermined by extremist Islam’s growing influence on politics and society, especially following the conviction last year of Jakarta’s former governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as “Ahok”, for blasphemy.

Large protests held against Ahok during his trial were found by the Indonesian Survey Institute to have sparked a more intolerant attitude in society generally.

In the run up to the 2019 elections in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, President Joko Widodo recently appointed Ma’ruf Amin, a 75-year-old conservative cleric, as his candidate for the vice-presidency.

Amin, head of the Indonesian Ulema Council, the country’s top Muslim clerical body, is reported to have played a key role in last year’s mass protests around Ahok’s blasphemy case. According to CSW he was “responsible for the signing of numerous fatwas, including that which resulted in the conviction and imprisonment of the former governor of Jakarta”.

In August, World Watch Monitor reported how the number of religious freedom violations in Indonesia grew again in 2017 and how, for the first time, non-state actors were the worst offenders. In May, 12 people were killed in suicide bombings at three churches in Surabaya, the capital of East Java province.