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Indonesia's new decree on religious houses disputed

Written by: Staff
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JAKARTA, Mar 29 (Reuters) A new Indonesian decree to regulate places of religious worship has drawn fire from groups ranging from Christians to a minority Islamic sect, and has been challenged in an appeal to the country's supreme court.

Lawyers calling themselves the ''religious freedom defence team''' have asked the Supreme Court to review the decree, which they say obstructs religious freedoms.

''They want to dispute that decree,'' said Abdul Manan, who handles the registration of appeals in Indonesia's Supreme Court.

''They think it is at odds with parts of the constitution on religion,'' he told Reuters.

Applicant Saor Siagian told the Jakarta Post newspaper that his team represents church groups and the Ahmadiyah Islamic sect.

The country's religious affairs and interior ministers last week issued the decree, establishing places of worship to replace an old and somewhat vague regulation.

Church groups have already said Christians in Indonesia feel increasingly uneasy, especially after Islamic radicals forced several unlicenced churches to shut down in recent months.

The new decree stipulates that any attempt to set up a house of worship must take into account the religious composition of the district where it is expected to stand.

If authorities find a request fits the composition, applicants need to show at least 90 people in the area will use the facility and that at least 60 other residents from other religions approve of having it in their neighbourhood.

The Indonesian Ulema Council, which groups Islamic clerics from across the country, has also expressed reservations over the decree but has stopped short of challenging it.

Besides sealing several churches across Indonesia, Islamic radicals have also damaged mosques and other facilities belonging to the Ahmadiyah group, which views itself as Muslim but which the hardliners brand as heretical.

Around 85 per cent of Indonesia's 220 million people are Muslims. Most of them are moderates who tolerate other beliefs.

However, religious harmony is being tested through the growing presence of the radicals, which some believe is a by-product of the 1998 downfall of President Suharto's despotic regime. It had put a tight leash on religious extremism.

While the radicals remain small in numbers, they are loud and visible, attracting local media to give them ample space.

Evangelical Christians have also obtained a higher profile in Indonesia in recent years.

REUTERS SY BST1452

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