Religious liberty threats pose 'real danger' in Indonesia, Burma

Catholics take part in a candle lit procession at St Marys Catholic Church Yangon Myanmar Credit Bessie and Kyle via Flickr CC BY NC SA 20 CNA 9 18 13 Catholics take part in a candle-lit procession at St. Mary's Catholic Church, Yangon, Myanmar. | Bessie and Kyle via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

The persecution of religious minorities in both Indonesia and Burma pose dangers not only to the two countries, but to the region and the world, says a human rights advocate who specializes in the area.

Speaking Sept. 12 on "Radical Islamism in Indonesia and Militant Buddhism in Burma," a talk sponsored by the Hudson Institute, Benedict Rogers said that "there is a real danger of these situations feeding off each other."

He added that religious freedom threats in the region pose "serious consequences for the two countries and beyond."

Rogers is the East Asia team leader for Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a London-based group that investigates religious freedom around the world.

Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim-majority country, has "been held up for a long time as a model" of religious pluralism and democracy, especially in Muslim world, he explained. However, "that pluralism is increasingly under threat from radical extremism and religious intolerance."

Indonesia's population is around 87 percent Muslim, and most Indonesian Muslims are Sunni. However, there are some Shia Muslims, as well as Ahmadis – a heterodox Muslim movement founded in the 19th century.

Rogers said that "a growing number of churches" and Ahmadiyya mosques "are being forced to close" because of local ordinances restricting religious practice in public places and the licensing of places of  worship set in place by city governments, in contradiction to the nation's constitution.

Self-proclaimed atheists have also been jailed for public statements of non-belief. In addition, a vigilante group known as the Islamic Defenders Front stages protests and uses violence against Christian, Ahmadiyya, and Shia groups and congregations.

One Ahmadi mosque that was forced to close was the subject of such violence and discrimination. The imam and several members, Rogers said, stayed in their condemned mosque to keep it from being torn down by local government officials and Islamic Defenders Front protestors.

"We want the international community to know what has happened here," the imam told Rogers. "Let the outside world know that we are not safe anymore. We are not free to believe what we want to believe."

Rogers explained that while such actions are against the country's laws, parts of the Indonesian government are "complicit in what we are seeing."

He pointed specifically to the actions of the president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, whose administration has been reticent to prosecute religious discrimination and other government officials.

Some government officials, such as the Minister for Religious Affairs, have "blamed the incidence of violence on the Christians and the Ahmadis," Rogers said.

Burma – also known as Myanmar – also faces threats to religious freedom. In the country, which is nearly 90 percent Buddhist, both Muslims and Christians have reported suffering persecution.

Rogers noted the rise of "militant Buddhism" there, primarily against Muslims, particularly the Rohingya, an ethnic group who live in Rakhine state. The Rohingya have long been persecuted by the country's Buddhist majority, and in 2012, riots in Rakhine displaced some 125,000 Rohingya.

In addition, the state has engaged in the targeting of individuals in Kachin state, which is home to an ethnic group whose identity is "tied up" with Christianity, he said. Within the territory, Kachin people have been held prisoner and forced to participate in sexual acts with other prisoners.

Rogers said he feared that such persecution of Muslims and Christians in Burma may "call the attention of radical Islamist groups" to use violence against their Buddhist persecutors. He warned that the destabilization of Burma, and the upsetting of the tradition of religious tolerance in Indonesia, may set an unfortunate example for other nations in the region.

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However, there is still hope, Rogers noted. In Burma, some Buddhists are beginning to speak out against the persecution, joining Christian and Muslim voices in opposition to the discrimination.

Rogers described meeting a former Islamic Defenders Front fighter, who became an advocate for religious liberty after speaking to his Ahmadi neighbors.

He also added that there is some public support for pluralism and solidarity with the persecuted in the country, displays of which have become more common as the country's 2014 national elections approach.

Still, "we just need more of them to counter this climate of hatred," he emphasized.

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