Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Photo by Reuters
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Indonesian human rights activists are protesting an American Jewish organization’s plans to give Indonesia’s president an award for religious freedom — a freedom that human rights monitors say has sharply deteriorated under his rule.

The annual award, given by Rabbi Arthur Schneier’s Appeal of Conscience Foundation, has no significant profile in the United States. But in Indonesia, Schneier’s decision to give the award to President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been the subject of street protests, newspaper articles, and angry statements by major national figures.

“He has laid down the legal infrastructure of the discrimination against religious minorities,” said Andreas Harsono, a Jakarta-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, of Yudhoyono.

According to recent Human Rights Watch reports, persecution against religious minorities, including non-Sunni Muslims and Christians, has burgeoned under the current president’s leadership. A recent U.S. State Department report faulted the Indonesian government for failing to protect religious minorities.

The Appeal of Conscience Foundation, an interfaith organization that bills itself as promoting religious freedom, said in a statement that the award to Yudhoyono is “an encouragement to advance human rights, religious freedom and interreligious cooperation.”

The group’s decision to bestow the religious freedom award on the Indonesian president has been the subject of headlines in seven Indonesian newspapers in recent days. Representatives of the Ahmadiyya and Shia communities, minority Muslim groups that have suffered persecution in Indonesia, issued statements condemning the award. Rights groups have called for a press conference in Jakarta opposing the award on May 23.

“How come they did not ask the Indonesian people’s opinion before they decided to give Yudhoyono the award?,” asked Rev. Franz Magnis-Suseno, a major Indonesian Catholic figure, according to an Indonesian press report.

Schneier, spiritual leader of the Park East Synagogue in Manhattan, a Modern Orthodox congregation, has developed a reputation for high-profile interfaith dialogue. Pope Benedict XVI visited his congregation in 2008, marking the first time a pope visited a U.S. synagogue. Schneier founded the Appeal of Conscience Foundation in 1965 and now serves as its president.

Schneier did not respond to a request for comment beyond the one issued by his group.
The Foundation is set to give Yudhoyono its World Statesman Award this fall at its annual fundraising dinner in Manhattan, which is the group’s regular venue for this presentation. Previous recipients include Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, among others.

Though Indonesia is the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, its citizens are religiously diverse. Most of the country’s Muslims are Sunni, but there are substantial communities of Shia and Ahmadiyya Muslims. The country also has large Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist populations, among others.

Watchdogs say that religious persecution has worsened under the current president. “Since Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono took office in December 2004, there has been an increase in violence targeting Ahmadiyyah, Christians, Shia, and other religious minorities,” Human Rights Watch reported in 2013.

The Ahmadiyya Muslims, in particular, have suffered greater religious persecution under Yudhoyono’s rule, say human rights monitors. A heterodox sect that broke off from mainstream Islam in the 19th century, the Ahmadiyyah have been a longstanding target in Indonesia. But in 2008, Yudhoyono’s government passed a decree making it illegal for the group to spread its beliefs. One leader of the anti- Ahmadiyya movement has been Suryadharma Ali, appointed by Yudhoyono to serve as his Minister of Religious Affairs.

If the organization hopes to change Yudhoyono’s behavior, the award may come too late. He is barred by term limits from running in Indonesia’s 2014 elections. “If they wanted him to do more, its not the time to do it,” said Jeremy Menchik, a professor of international relations at Boston University. “It’s going to help whitewash his legacy.”

Read more at The Forward