Indonesian Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali has again come under fire for allegedly supporting the forced conversion of Shia followers to Sunni Islam in a reconciliation program the government claimed was meant to end the conflict between the two Islamic denominations in Madura, East Java.
Human rights activists accused the minister of failing to put aside his personal beliefs in the reconciliation process and demanded that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono disengage him from the efforts to return the Shia refugees.
â€œThe government should instead involve people like [former vice president] Jusuf Kalla or Catholic priest Franz Magnis Suseno, for example, in the reconciliation process instead of SDA, who is obviously unable to take a distance with his personal religious belief,â€ Hertasning Ichlas, executive director of Universalia Legal Aid Institute (YLBH Universalia) and an attorney for Sampang Shia community, told The Jakarta Post on Sunday, referring to Surydharma with his initials.
Weeks after the Shiites were evicted from their home villages in Sampang in June this year, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono assigned the Religious Affairs Ministry to lead the reconciliation process in cooperation with the Sunan Ampel State Islamic Institute (IAIN) in Surabaya.
However, Hertasning said that Suryadharma and his fellow United Development Party (PPP) politician, Djan Faridz, who is also the Public Housing Minister, attended meetings where the Shiites were forced to denounce their faith if they wished to safely return to their villages.
Such meetings were also supported by Sampang Regent Fannan Hasib, who was nominated by two Islamic parties, the PPP and the Prosperous Justice Party (PKS), Head of Sampangâ€™s Municipal Political and National Unity Office (Kesbangpol) Rudi Setiadi, local police officials and a number of Sunni clerics.
According to Hertasning, 34 out of around 235 Shiites evicted from Sampang have returned to their homes by Aug. 7 as they finally agreed to sign a pledge of nine points which included willingness to return to â€œthe true teaching of Islamâ€ as well as to condemn of the teachings of Shiite cleric Tajul Muluk, who is currently imprisoned over blasphemy.
Hertasning said that Shiites that refused to sign the agreement suffered intimidation; with some of them losing their land for good while a few others should depart for Jakarta to stay in a safe house.
â€œThe reconciliation process has turned political because the PPP has a great number of supporters in the area. We must immediately do something about it especially as the gubernatorial election is coming soon,â€ he said.
The forced conversion scandal has raised concerns from several leading figures, including from former vice president Jusuf Kalla and Din Syamsuddin, chairman of the countryâ€™s second largest Islamic group, Muhammadiyah.
Kalla, who chairs the Indonesian Mosque Council (DMI) and is also known as a peace broker, said that such a forced conversion was unconstitutional.
â€œThat is not reconciliation. Reconciliation will equally guarantee the rights of conflicting groups. And it is definitely free from imposition of the will [of the majority group],â€ Kalla told reporters on the sideline of an Idul Fitri open house event at his residence in South Jakarta on Friday.
Meanwhile, Din, who was among Kallaâ€™s guests on that day, emphasized that the process should be free from forced belief, especially if it was led by government officials. â€œThere should have not been any coercion. It is unfair for the government to take sides,â€ Din said.
Suryadharma has not yet responded to this accusation, but the Religious Affairs Ministry spokesman Zubaidi told the Post on Sunday that the allegation was baseless. â€œThatâ€™s not true. The minister has never done such a thing,â€ he said.
Home Affairs Minister Gamawan Fauzi denied that the government had forced the Shia adherents to leave their faith. â€œIt was not a forced conversion. We are actually giving them directions so that they could return to their home village.
Photo: Separation: Shiite refugees (right side of the blue cloth) participate in Idul Fitri prayers at a mosque near their camp in Sidoarjo, East Java, on Thursday. The Shiite followers are saying their prayers without prayer mats, because they were not allowed to participate in the prayers along with other Muslims.