JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) - A decision by Indonesia's constitutional court to uphold a controversial blasphemy law has dealt a severe blow to religious freedom in the world's largest Muslim-majority country, a rights group said Tuesday.
The court ruled Monday that the 1965 law, which allows for
criminal penalties and bans on people or groups that "distort"
the central tenets of six officially recognized religions, was in
line with the constitution and was vital to religious harmony.
The law was challenged by a coalition of rights groups and civil
society organizations who consider it discriminatory. But it is
supported by religious conservatives, including the radical Islamic
Defenders Front, which had gathered at the court and threatened to
protest if the judges didn't uphold it.
Although the law recognizes six official religions in the
country - the standard forms of Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism,
Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism - rights activists say it
discriminates against minority religions, including Muslims whose
beliefs differ from the mainstream.
The vast majority of Indonesia's 235 million people are moderate
Opponents say the law, which carries penalties of up to 5 years
in jail, should be struck down because it limits religious freedom
- which is constitutionally protected in this secular country.
The court rejected those concerns in its 8-1 decision. The
majority said the law was in place to protect all religions from
desecration and to ensure religious harmony between faiths. They
said the law did not bar other religions such as Judaism from being
practiced, but simply protected those covered by the law.
"The law should be upheld because if it is annulled ... Islam
and the Quran could be interpreted at will and people and figures
could declare new prophets and establish new religions," Minister
of Religious Affairs Suryadharma Ali said ahead of the ruling.
Critics say the law is vague, allowing authorities to interpret
and enforce it how they choose. It has largely been used against
those seen as offending mainstream Islam.
They also say hard-line Islamic groups have used the law as
justification for violent attacks on minority religious groups.
The government has used the blasphemy law in the past to outlaw
religious groups, including Ahmadiyah, a minority Islamic sect
banned in 2008 whose members identify themselves as Muslims but
don't believe in the core tenet of Islam that Muhammad is the last
Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said
in a statement Tuesday that the court decision "poses a real
threat to the beliefs of Indonesia's religious minorities."
"The blasphemy law criminalizes the peaceful expression of
certain religious beliefs," she added.
The dissenting judge called the law weak, saying it could be
interpreted in multiple ways that lead to discrimination. The judge
said the law was written during a revolutionary era when
Indonesia's authoritarian rulers were worried about social unrest
and that the law wasn't needed in modern Indonesia.
"The judges closed their eyes and hearts," said Chairul Annam,
one of the lawyers arguing for the law's repeal. "We are very
sorry that discrimination suffered by minorities in this country
was not recognized by the court."
Associated Press writer Niniek Karmini contributed to this
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