Freedom of Religion or Belief News


The now disbanded Gafatar hit the headlines after dozens of people, who had been reported missing by relatives, were believed to have joined. Last year, hundreds of members had to be evacuated from their West Kalimantan base after being attacked by residents who opposed their beliefs.

Gafatar was labeled by Indonesia’s Ulema Council a deviant sect and authorities had described its teachings as “dangerous”. People associated with the group say it is a social organization, not religious.

A panel of judges at the East Jakarta court on Tuesday jailed Mahful Muis Tumanurung and Ahmad Mussadeq for five years and Andry Cahya for three years for blasphemy. The men were cleared of treason charges.

A lawyer for the men, Yudhistira, described it as a “malicious prosecution” that had tainted Indonesia’s justice system and said would consider whether to appeal.

Indonesia’s blasphemy laws have come under greater scrutiny since Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, Jakarta’s Christian governor, was put on trial for allegedly insulting the Koran. He has denied wrongdoing but his trial has inflamed religious tensions. Almost all blasphemy cases in recent years have ended in conviction.

Indonesia has the world’s largest population of Muslims, the majority of whom adhere to moderate Sunni beliefs, and it recognizes six religions including Hinduism, Catholicism and Buddhism, but minorities, even within Islam, have faced rising intolerance in recent years.

Human rights organizations criticized the verdicts.

“The sentences show how Indonesia’s vague, coercive and discriminatory blasphemy laws are being used to punish people for peacefully exercising minority beliefs,” said Josef Benedict, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

They were approved after a heated discussion that turned into shouting matches between ruling coalition members and Arab lawmakers, some of whom tore copies of the legislation and were ejected from the chamber.

The bills passed 55-48 and 55-47 in the Knesset, or parliament.

While the bills in theory would apply to any religious place of worship, Muslims say it is clearly meant to silence the traditional call to prayer at mosques.

The measure has become commonly known as the "muezzin law" after the Muslim official charged with calling the faithful to prayer, often through powerful speakers mounted on minarets.

The notion of Israeli legislation silencing mosques has sparked outrage around the Arab and wider Muslim world.

Supporters of the move say it is needed to prevent daily disturbance to the lives of hundreds of thousands of non-Muslim Israelis.

Last month, government ministers endorsed the softer version of the bill prohibiting loudspeakers overnight, which limits its scope to the first of the five daily Muslim calls to prayer just before dawn.

That version would apply to mosques in annexed east Jerusalem as well as Israel, but not to the highly sensitive Al-Aqsa mosque compound, Islam's third holiest site, according to an Israeli official.

'A racist act'

An earlier draft limiting volumes throughout the day had been rejected because it might have silenced the siren sounded in Jewish areas at sunset on Friday to mark the start of the Sabbath.

However, the stricter measure was revived by members of the hardline Yisrael Beitenu party, part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition, leading to Wednesday's two votes.

It was not immediately clear if that version would apply to Al-Aqsa, located in mainly Palestinian east Jerusalem.

One of the sponsors of the less rigid bill, Motti Yogev of the far-right Jewish Home, said the proposal was "a social law that aims to enable people to sleep".

"Loudspeakers have not been here forever, and in recent decades there are alarm clocks for whoever wants to wake up for the mosque," he said.

Ahmad Tibi of the predominantly Arab Joint List alliance of lawmakers called the measure "a racist act".

"This is an important Muslim religious ceremony, and (the Knesset) has never intervened in a Jewish religious event," he said.

Opposition has not only come from Arabs and Muslims.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has spoken out against the move, saying existing noise pollution regulations provide a solution.

Government watchdog groups have called the measure an unnecessary provocation that threatens freedom of religion.

At Wednesday's debate, Environmental Protection Minister Zeev Elkin said the new law was necessary since the existing rules set a low fine that causes police to disregard noise violations.

The new proposed law sets a fine of 10,000 shekels ($2,714, 2,573 euros) to transgressors.

In Jordan, the official custodian of Muslim holy sites in annexed east Jerusalem, Information Minister Mohamed Momani condemned the bills as "discriminatory".

They were contrary to "Israeli commitments under the peace accord" that the Jewish state signed with Jordan in 1994, he said, quoted by the official news agency Petra.

The small Siberian town of Birobidzhan is set in a mosquito-infested swampland on the far eastern end of the Trans-Siberian railway. It was to places such as this that the Soviets exiled various undesirables. In April 1951 more than 9,000 Jehovah's Witnesses were rounded up and sent to Siberia on Stalin's instruction.

They were allowed to take 150kg of their possessions with them. Everything else was confiscated by the state.

You may walk past embarrassed as Jehovah's Witnesses try and hand you cringeworthy religious literature on the high street. But these were some of the most persecuted Christians of the 20th century. And their persecution continues.

A couple of months ago, the Russian police raided the Birobidzhan branch of the Jehovah's Witnesses and "discovered" extremist literature. The Jehovah's Witnesses describe the incident thus: "Masked special police disrupted a religious meeting and planted literature under a chair in the presence of the attendees." The police ordered the place to be permanently closed.

A few weeks later, the Russian ministry of justice demanded that the Jehovah's Witnesses HQ hand over all information on their 2,277 Russian congregations. After a brief examination of what the police allegedly found, it concluded that the Jehovah's Witnesses were showing signs of "extremist activity".

Congregations in Belgorod, Stary Oskol and Elista have all been shut down. Bibles have been impounded at customs, their literature banned. Many expect that the Russians are gearing up for an outright ban.

"Unfortunately, in today's Russia, the will to confine Russians to restricted and state-determined religious beliefs has proved increasingly strong," is how Andrew Wood, former British ambassador to Russia, described what has been going on. "Fabrication is always both repellent and a sign of desperation at the absence of credible proof of extremism."

So what is it about Jehovah's Witnesses that the Russians find so objectionable? This week, I decided not to avoid the eye of the couple who hand out literature at my tube station. So many times I've ignored them, and their Olympic smiling endurance, brushing past grumpily. Reading about their history, I now feel guilty about my lack of respect.

On open display was What Does the Bible Really Teach?, the book that the Russian authorities often plant in kingdom halls as an excuse to shut them down. I flicked through. It's really not my thing. And the graphics are criminally cheesy. But it's pretty bog-standard Christian fundamentalism, with an emphasis on the end of the world.

"What makes the Jehovah's Witnesses different?" I asked the smiling man.

"We take the Bible literally," he replied.

"But so do others. What makes you distinctive?"

"Take 'thou shalt not kill,'" he replied. "We don't participate in war."

Jehovah's Witnesses were taken to Nazi death camps for that very reason. They refused to swear loyalty to a worldly government and refused to serve in the military. They wouldn't say Heil Hitler either. So within months of the Nazis coming to power, their meetings were ransacked and a Gestapo unit was set up to register all known Jehovah's Witnesses. Their children were taken off them to receive a proper patriotic German education. And they were given their own purple triangle to wear as identification. In 1942, Wolfgang Kusserow was beheaded in Brandenburg prison by the Nazis for refusing to fight. "You must not kill," he said at his trial. "Did our creator have all this written down for the trees?"

Jehovah's Witnesses are right to fear what is happening to them again, right now, in Russia. They have seen it all before. It should be a warning to all of us that the idea under which they are now being persecuted is that of "extremism". It's a word that draws its persuasive force from those who would use their religion to plant bombs and sever heads. So anti-terror legislation is now also being used to target those whose faith is only "extreme" in terms of its commitment to non-violence. The Russians are using the fear of Islamism as an excuse to crack down on all religious activity that refuses to bow the knee to Mother Russia.

"My parents were exiled to Siberia," said Yaroslav Sivulskiy, a spokesman for the Russian Jehovah's Witnesses. "They worshipped even while they were in those camps. We will continue too." Respect, I say.

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(c) 2017 Human Rights Without Frontiers International

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