At a government-owned apartment complex in the Indonesian city of Sidoarjo, near Surabaya, children play in the yard as their parents sit together and talk to pass the time.
They are among more than 330 residents here who belong to Indonesia’s Shia Muslim minority and were forced to flee their village on nearby Madura Island in 2012, after an attack by neighbors from the Sunni majority left one person dead.
Now, the leader of the uprooted community who was formerly imprisoned for alleged blasphemy, says he sees a glimmer of hope that the Shia will soon be able to live again in Sampang, their home regency.
“Our intention has always been to return to our home village,” Tajul Muluk, who is a cleric, told BenarNews. “We hope it won’t be delayed until next year. The local government needs to provide certainty.”
Tajul said the community continued to communicate with religious and community leaders in Sampang and regency chief Slamet Junaidi had recently expressed willingness to allow the displaced Shia residents to return there.
On Aug. 26, 2012, hundreds of Sunni residents, armed with machetes and sickles, attacked the Shia community on Madura and torched their homes. The attack killed a 45-year-old woman and seriously injured several people.
It culminated years of problems that Shia residents of the island had faced from government officials and religious authorities, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). A similar attack occurred in December 2013, but with no fatalities.
Many Sunnis consider Shiism to be a deviant sect but, in 2012, Madura security officials attributed the violence to a conflict within a religiously prominent family, members of which were both Sunnis and Shias.
According to HRW, in 2009 Tajul had a disagreement with his younger brother that led the sibling join an anti-Shia campaign in Madura.
In July 2012, a local court sentenced Tajul to two years in prison after finding him guilty of spreading deviant teachings “causing public anxiety” and blaspheming Islam. The term was later raised to four years after prosecutors appealed for a longer sentence.
During his trial in Madura, some witnesses testified that the cleric had taught that the current Quran was not an authentic text; Muslims should pray only three times a day instead of five; and the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca was not obligatory.
Tajul is one of more than 150 people, mostly members of religious minorities, who have been convicted under Indonesia’s Blasphemy Laws since it was enacted in 1965, Human Rights Watch said.
The law is designed to protect the six religions recognized by the Indonesian state – Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism. But in practice, it has been used against members of religious minorities deemed to have blasphemed Islam.
In one of the most prominent cases prosecuted under the law, in 2017 a court sentenced Jakarta Gov. Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, a Christian, to two years in prison after finding him guilty of blasphemy for comments in an edited video of a public speech by him that were deemed as blasphemous toward Islam.
At the Jemundo apartment blocks in Sidoarja, where the displaced Shia live, each family, which typically has six to eight members, occupies a 30 square-meter (323 square-foot) flat.
Before maintenance work earlier this year, the complex had been in a state of disrepair for more than five years. Residents described it as dilapidated and squalid.
In its 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom, which it published last year, the U.S. State Department noted the case of the uprooted Indonesian Shia community.
“More than 338 Shia Muslims from Madura remained displaced on the outskirts of Surabaya … after communal violence forced them from their homes in 2012,” the report said.
The State Department noted that the Indonesian Council of Ulema (MUI), the country’s top clerical body that is funded by the government, had called upon mosques to increase compassion and tolerance instead of hatred and hate speech, in the wake of attacks carried out in 2018 against religious minority groups, including Ahmadi Muslims.
But “Intolerant groups” also used MUI fatwas to justify actions against religious minorities and other vulnerable groups, even though the fatwas lacked legal standing, the report noted.
“Individuals affiliated at the local level with the MUI used rhetoric considered intolerant by religious minorities, including fatwas declaring Shia and Ahmadis as deviant sects,” it said. “Shia and Ahmadi Muslims reported feeling under constant threat from ‘intolerant groups.’”
There are an estimated 2.5 million Shias in Indonesia, but most of them keep their beliefs secret, citing fears of being persecuted or estranged from their families.
In March 2020, representatives of the Shia community in Sidoarja went to the office of East Java Gov. Khofifah Indar Parawansa to demand that they be allowed to return for good to Madura and that a 2012 gubernatorial regulation on the monitoring of “deviant sects” be revoked. Both Madura and Sidoarja are in East Java province.
Khofifah, who did not see the protesters, sent a senior official to meet with the Shia group at their apartment complex, but his office has since taken no concrete action to meet their demands, Tajul said.
“So far, there has been no response from the governor,” Tajul said.
A member of the provincial legislative council, Hari Putri Lestari, said the governor needed to address the plight of the displaced Shia.
“The governor should be responsive to their needs,” she told BenarNews.
Officials at the governor’s office could not be immediately reached for comment.
Slamet Junaidi, the regent of Sampang, met with the Shia community in their apartment complex in early May and assured them that there would not be any discrimination against the religious minority if they returned to the island.
Talks with religious and community leaders in Sampang about accepting the Shia residents were ongoing, he also said.
“We continue to maintain communication with the Shia community,” Slamet said at the time.
‘Not accustomed to living on handouts’
In Sidoarjo, other residents have treated the Shias relatively well, despite some suspicion from locals at the beginning of their stay here, Tajul told BenarNews.
“So far there has been no discrimination. Praying in the mosque is safe,” he said, adding that Shia and Sunni neighbors had previously visited each other on Eid al-Fitr, the Muslim festival marking the end of the fasting month of Ramadan.
However in 2018, the government of Sidoarja stopped allowing Shia children to attend pre-school, forcing the community to provide early childhood education independently, he said.
Many Shia residents make a living as farmers and selling food, including traditional Madurese satay, to supplement a monthly stipend of 709,000 rupiah (U.S. $48) they receive from the government. Some others do odds jobs, including in construction.
“We are not accustomed to living on handouts. The thing that we have in mind most is returning to our home village,” Tajul said.
He said the community had no problems accessing basic government services, such as obtaining ID cards, marriage certificates as well as papers for their properties back home.
The coronavirus pandemic, meanwhile, has not affected the Shia community much, although some of its members have complained about losing income, Tajul said. The city government has helped out the Shia by supplying them with masks and food during the public health crisis, he said.
“We are village people who consider diseases to be normal. So we are not too consumed with this COVID-19 thing. We believe that our lives belong to God,” the Shia leader said.