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Washington's Statue of Hypocrisy: Putting a Smiley Face on Indonesia's Religious Intolerance

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In early June, the Indonesian government erected a 16-foot gleaming white statue of Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge, on Washington's Embassy Row.

Indonesia's ambassador to the US, Dino Patti Djalal, touted the statue as a symbol of the "respect for religious freedom" in the world's most populous Muslim country. The serenity of Saraswati's statue and the representations of three children peacefully studying at her feet are unquestionable. But while the symbolism of religious harmony in Washington is encouraging, the reality on the ground in many parts of Indonesia is starkly different.

On August 7, a bomb planted by unknown perpetrators exploded inside a Buddhist temple in downtown Jakarta while congregants worshipped, injuring three men. Police are investigating. The violence comes just weeks after Indonesian Islamist militants vowed vengeance against Buddhists for attacks in Burma by members of the Buddhist majority against the local Rohingya Muslim population. A day later, unknown perpetrators tossed Molotov cocktails into the yard of a Catholic high school in Jakarta. Staff scrambled to extinguish the flames and kept the devices from igniting by dousing them with water from the school's bathroom.

The minority Shia Muslim community in Indonesia's Sampang regency on Madura Island weren't so lucky. Hundreds of men, women and children have sought refuge in a sports stadium since August 2012 after more than 1,000 Sunni Islamist militants attacked their village. The attackers torched about 50 homes, killed one villager and seriously injured another.

Rather than arrest the people responsible for the attacks and protect the threatened Shias, local police stood by while the survivors fled for their lives. On June 20, just weeks after Saraswati took her place along Embassy Row, a group of 1,000 Sunni militants besieged the stadium where the Shia villagers had been stuck for a year. Government officials actively assisted the militants pursue their demands to press the Shia to relocate to a town more than two hours away.

The ordeal of Sampang's Shia community is not unique. Across Indonesia, religious minorities, including several Protestant groups, Shia, and the Ahmadiyah, who consider themselves Muslims but are considered blasphemers by some other Muslims, are targets of harassment, intimidation, threats and, increasingly, acts of mob violence. Indonesia's Setara Institute, which monitors religious freedom in Indonesia, documented 264 cases of violent attacks on religious minorities in 2012, an increase from 216 such cases in 2010.

The Ahmadiyah community in the village of Cikeusik in western Java is an example of the toxic collusion of thuggish Islamist violence and the Indonesian government's wholly inadequate response to their abuses. On February 6, 2011 around 1,500 Islamist militants attacked 21 members of Cikeusik's Ahmadiyah community in a prayer meeting in a private home. The militants beat to death three Ahmadiyah men and seriously injured five others. A court sentenced 12 of the attackers to token prison sentences of three to six months. In a perverse twist, the court also sentenced an Ahmadiyah man to a six-month prison term for using violence to defend himself. Police have yet to publicly release the results of their internal investigation into the attack.

There are signs that the Indonesian government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono may finally be recognizing the seriousness of these abuses. On August 16, Yudhoyono said that he was "very concerned" about rising religious intolerance and related violence. That's a welcome change from February 2013, when Yudhoyono's spokesman tried to dismiss a February 2013 Human Rights Watch report detailing violations of religious freedom as "naïve."

Yudhoyono needs to translate his concern into action. He can start by ensuring his government investigates and prosecutes members of Islamist militant groups such as the Islamic People's Forum (Forum Umat Islam) and the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam). These groups seek to justify violence by espousing an interpretation of Sunni Islam that labels most non-Muslims as "infidels," and Muslims who do not adhere to Sunni orthodoxy as "blasphemers."

While Yudhoyono claims to be committed to stopping these kinds of attacks, he has retained a minister for religious affairs who encourages extremism. He has done little to stop government officials and security forces that facilitate militant Islamists groups that harass and intimidate religious minorities.

These officials have made blatantly discriminatory statements, refused to issue building permits for religious minorities' houses of worship, and, as in the case of Sampang's Shia community, pressured congregations to relocate. Indonesian officials have also violated the rights and freedoms of the country's religious minorities by issuing decrees and fatwas (religious rulings) against members of religious minorities and using their position of authority to press for the prosecution of "blasphemers."

Pressure from the United States and others could encourage Yudhoyono to implement a "zero tolerance" policy for violence against religious minorities. He needs to back his words with action by ensuring that police investigate and prosecutors appropriately prosecute those believed responsible for such acts.

For inspiration, the Indonesian government can look to the Hindu goddess Saraswati, who is also revered as a guardian deity for worshippers of Buddhism. Until the Indonesian government takes meaningful action to defend the rights of its religious minorities, Saraswati's statue on Embassy Row will stand as Indonesia's Potemkin symbol of religious freedom denied, rather than protected.

Phelim Kine is a deputy director of Asia division at Human Rights Watch and a former Indonesia-based foreign correspondent