Indonesian president's award from US religious foundation angers rights groups

Published May 29, 2013

| Associated Press

Indonesia's president is receiving an award for promoting religious freedom from a New York-based foundation, prompting anger from human rights groups that say the country is not doing enough to prevent attacks on religious minorities in the world's most populous Muslim nation.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who is in town for United Nations meetings on global development goals, was being honored by Rabbi Arthur Schneier's Appeal of Conscience Foundation on Thursday night.

Schneier is a Holocaust survivor and was a champion of rights of Jews under the Soviet Union. His foundation has handed out its "world statesman" award for decades, generally without controversy, to figures such as British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

But Human Rights Watch has cited a steady increase in attacks in Indonesia over the past few years due to the government's failure to confront harassment against Christians, Shia Muslims and the Ahmadiyah, an Islamic sect.

"'Appeal of Conscience' purports to be an organization that promotes religious tolerance. And the simple fact is that Yudhoyono is not promoting religious tolerance in Indonesia. Quite the opposite," Human Rights Watch's Asia advocacy director, John Sifton, told The Associated Press.

Usman Hamid, an activist with the Indonesian human rights group Kontras, also questioned the credibility of the foundation in giving the award to his country's president.

Indonesia's U.N. Mission had no comment.

Indonesia is a secular country, and majority of its 210 million Muslims are Sunni, with most practicing a moderate form of the faith.

But Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali called for the Ahmadiyah to be banned in 2011 and last year proposed that Shia Muslims convert to Sunni Islam.

And senior U.S. State Department official, Dan Baer, last week expressed concern over a "disturbing trend" in forcible closures of churches — including 50 in 2012 — and of Ahmadiyah mosques.

The secretary-general of Indonesia's Religious Affairs Ministry, Bahrul Hayat, said a government survey completed at the end of last year indicated that religious harmony is very strong.

"We noted that a few violations happened, but please don't generalize that intolerance has increased in Indonesia," he said. He added that in some cases, religion is blamed when instead some disputes are motivated by political, economic or other issues.

An online petition rejecting Thursday's award, launched by Imam Shofwan of Indonesia's largest Muslim group, Nahdlatul Ulama, had been signed by more than 8,000 petitioners as of early Wednesday.

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Associated Press writers Margie Mason and Niniek Karmini in Jakarta contributed to this report.

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