An American-based religious freedom watchdog group has placed Indonesia and Malaysia on a special watch list over its concerns about treatment of minorities, and is recommending that the U.S. State Department do the same.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), in its 2020 annual report, said the two Southeast Asian countries were among 15 countries that it put on that list.
“Instead of using its own ‘Tier 2’ category, as in past reports, the 2020 Annual Report also recommends 15 countries for placement on the State Department’s Special Watch List for severe violations,” the commission said in releasing the report this week.
The other 13 countries are Cuba, Nicaragua, Sudan, and Uzbekistan – which the State Department had already added to the Special Watch List last December – followed by Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, the Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Kazakhstan, and Turkey.
In its sections on Indonesia and Malaysia, the commission’s report recommended that both countries be placed on “the U.S. Department of State’s Special Watch List for engaging in or tolerating severe violations of religious freedom pursuant to the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).”
On Wednesday, a day after the report came out, government officials in Jakarta did not immediately respond to requests for comment from BenarNews. In Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian government told BenarNews that it needed to review the report before Religious Affairs Minister Zulkifli Mohamad Al-Bakri could comment on it.
USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act. The commission monitors the universal right to freedom of religion or belief abroad and makes policy recommendations to the president, secretary of state, and Congress.
“In 2019, religious freedom conditions in Indonesia generally trended negatively compared to the previous year,” the report said in its chapter on Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.
East Java and West Java, among the most densely populated Indonesian provinces, “had the highest number of incidents of religious intolerance,” the report said.
Citing reports from local NGOs, the commission listed “discrimination, hate speech, acts of violence and rejections of permits to build houses of worship for minority religious communities” as types and examples of intolerance.
Specific incidents in Indonesia included the case of a Catholic woman charged with blasphemy after she brought her dog into a mosque. The report noted that she was acquitted in February 2020 after a three-judge panel ruled that she suffered from paranoid Schizophrenia.
A second case involved a Buddhist woman who was convicted of blasphemy in 2018 after she asked a nearby mosque to lower the volume of its speakers for the call to prayer. USCIRF noted that the Indonesian Supreme Court rejected her appeal in April 2019, adding she was paroled one month later.
The report said hardline Muslim groups had threatened efforts by Buddhists to build a temple and Christians seeking to build a Pentecostal church.
It linked politicians to efforts to stifle religious freedom – pointing to Prabowo Subianto, who unsuccessfully ran for president against incumbent Joko “Jokowi” Widodo last year. It said Prabowo “attempted” to mobilize a group of hardline Muslim supporters who led efforts to overthrow Jakarta’s ethnic Chinese Christian governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama in 2017.
Jowoki’s administration did not escape unscathed.
Following his reelection, “there were reports that the government planned to introduce stricter background checks to identify religious extremists in the bureaucracy and remove them. In November, the government launched a website that allowed members of the public to report on alleged ‘radical content’ shared by public servants online,” it said.
Minority Muslim sects, including Shia and Ahmadiyah, also faced hostility and harassment in 2019, according to the commission. “The quasi-governmental Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI) has issued fatwas declaring these groups ‘deviant” and heretical to Islam,” the report said.
Usman Hamid, the executive director of Amnesty International Indonesia, said such discrimination had continued amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Earlier this month, the Al-Aqsa Mosque owned by the Ahmadiyah community in Tasikmalaya, West Java, was sealed off by the local government on the pretext of social distancing measures to prevent transmission of COVID-19, according to Usman.
“This discriminatory action has been taken under the pretext of preventing greater resistance by local residents against Ahmadiyah group, not for public health reasons,” Usman told BenarNews.
Bonar Tigor Naipospos of the Setara Institute, a human rights organization in Jakarta, urged the government to abolish blasphemy laws and revise the criminal code.
“We consider that in a society that respects the right to freedom, regulations on blasphemy should be abolished and replaced with regulations on incitement to hatred and discrimination based on religion,” Bonar told BenarNews.
In its section on Malaysia, USCIRF said conditions for worship in the country continued to trend negatively from previous years.
“Conditions for minority faith believers as well as for majority Sunni Muslims stagnated or, in some cases, worsened,” it said.
The chapter on Malaysia focused on authorities issuing warnings against “deviant” sects and the threats they present to Islam.
“The pairing of Malay ethnicity with the Islamic religion continues to infringe on the human rights of individual Malays,” the report said. “Historically, the religious Sharia courts have declared several minority Muslim groups as non-Muslim, which persistently creates a grey area for those Malays who adhere to officially ‘deviant’ sects of Islam.”
In August 2019, the Sabah state legislature amended its Sharia crime law of 1995 declaring Sunni Islam the official religion and criminalized alternative interpretations.
Kamil Zuhairi Abdul Azizi, chairman of Syiah Malaysia, said his group of Shiite Muslims had been discriminated against for a decade.
“Our rights to practice our form of Islam is not a deviation to the orthodox form of Islam, but even so our right to worship at private premises are denied, our right to marriage is restricted and right to free speech and peaceful demonstration is blocked,” he told BenarNews.
“We are insulted in Friday sermons continuously, and slandered openly in mosques by religious figures, who made threats to our safety openly in the media without any repercussion,” he said.
In addition, non-Muslim groups – specifically Hindus, Buddhists and Christians – reported “feeling increasing strain and social hostility,” the report said.
Minority houses of worship are regulated, hundreds of Hindu temples have been demolished in recent years and Buddhist temples cannot be taller than local mosques, USCIRF said.
USCIRF, however, did commend the Malaysian government for establishing a special task force in June 2019 to investigate the enforced disappearances of two prominent religious minority leaders.
“Nevertheless, the whereabouts of Christian pastor Raymond Koh and social activist and Shia convert Amri Che Mat, as well as of Pastor Joshua Hilmy and his wife, remained unknown at the end of the reporting period,” the commission said.
The report’s special watch list is new for 2020, replacing its Tier 2 list in previous reports. In 2019, USCIRF reported that Indonesia had been on the Tier 2 list since 2004 and Malaysia had been on it since 2014.
The list’s worst offenders, including China, Myanmar, India, Pakistan, North Korea and Vietnam, are considered countries of particular concern. In previous years the list carried that title along with Tier 1.
USCIRF officials on Wednesday did not immediately respond to requests for comment from BenarNews.
Ronna Nirmala in Jakarta and Hadi Azmi in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.