Monday, January 22, 2024

A Step for Freedom of Religion and Belief in Indonesia

Government Agrees to Recognize Smaller Religions on National ID Card

Andreas Harsono
Indonesia Researcher

 In Indonesia, a believer in Judaism shows his new ID card with the religious column, "Belief in the one God." © 2023 Andreas Harsono/Human Rights Watch

In a step forward for freedom of religion and belief in Indonesia, citizens from smaller religious groups are now permitted to change the religious identity on their identity cards, with the introduction of a new category, kepercayaan (belief), alongside the six recognized religions.

Kepercayaan has become the seventh religious category to join the list of government-recognized religions – joining Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism – since the nationwide blasphemy law went into effect in 1965.

Marubat Sitorus, the secretary general of the Parmalim association, a local religious group located around Lake Toba, Sumatra Island, said that about 95 percent of its members had changed their religious identity to the new category. Starting in December 2017, the Parmalim were the first group to start changing their religious identity on their cards.

The introduction of a seventh category began in September 2016 when four believers of local religions filed a petition at the Constitutional Court to change the 2004 Population Administrative Law. The plaintiffs included Nggay Mehang Tana of Sumba Island, a Marapu believer; Pagar Demanra Sirait of Toba Samosir in Sumatra, a Parmalim believer; Arnol Purba of Medan Belawan in Sumatra, an Ugamo Bangsa Batak believer; and Carlim of Brebes, Java Island, a Sapta Darma believer.

In October 2017, the Constitutional Court found in their favor, ruling that it is discriminatory not to recognize their faith and ordering the Civil Registration Office to print “penghayat kepercayaan (practitioner of belief) in the appropriate slot on the ID cards’ rather than leaving it as a blank strip.

However, the Indonesian Ulama Council, an umbrella organization of Muslim groups, disagreed, contending that kepercayaan are different from “monotheistic religions,” and suggested the government provide two types of ID cards – for religion and for belief. After some negotiations, the government and the ulamas, Muslim clerics, compromised and added the sentence “Belief in the one God,” putting multiple small religions into a single category.

“This is a positive step even though it is not yet [fully] in accordance with the Constitutional Court's decision,” Sitorus told Human Rights Watch. “The pressure faced by the government, including individuals in the government itself, was immense.”

At least 138,000 Indonesians, from many religious groups, had chosen this new category nationwide, according to the Civil Registration Office. Now the government needs to move forward to end other forms of discrimination in government, society, and business against the adherents of these small, localized religions. 

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