Indonesia’s Ancient Beliefs Win in Court, but Devotees Still Feel Ostracized

A Baduy tribesman in Banten, Indonesia, in 2015. The Baduy follow one of Indonesia’s hundreds of traditional beliefs systems, known generally as aliran kepercayaan.

JAKARTA, Indonesia — Growing up on the Indonesian island of Java in the 1970s, Dewi Kanti practiced an ancient form of indigenous traditional beliefs whose origins predate the arrivals of Christianity, Buddhism and Islam here by centuries.

Ironically, Ms. Dewi notes bitterly, those traditional beliefs make her a religious outcast in her own country today, where the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion but the government recognizes only six: Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Protestantism, Catholicism and Confucianism.

“The point here is how there is no justice,” she said. “Why can these big global religions spread and be recognized, but the original religion of Indonesia cannot?”

It is a question she and others are still waiting to see answered, despite a landmark ruling in November by the Constitutional Court that affirmed the rights of followers of traditional beliefs outside of the six recognized religions.

The ruling came amid signs of growing intolerance of religious minorities in Indonesia, which is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, and objections from some Islamic groups.

Five months later, the Indonesian government has yet to implement the Constitutional Court ruling, although officials say they are working on it.

In a country where religion plays a large part in public life, followers of traditional beliefs, known generally as aliran kepercayaan, hope the ruling will finally end decades of unofficial discrimination that makes it difficult for them to get permits to open gathering places, obtain marriage licenses and get access to public services like health care and education. It also complicates efforts by those believers to get military, police or civil service jobs, or even burial plots in cemeteries.

There are hundreds of different forms of aliran kepercayaan spread across the vast Indonesian archipelago. In Java, the most populous island, it is often a mix of animist, Hindu-Buddhist and Islamic beliefs.

Forms of kepercayaan can include certain periodic religious observances, such as communal meals or acts that could be compared to Muslim men praying together on Fridays or Sunday Christian services. These may include ritual offerings to appease spirits, even though the practitioners could also be registered as Muslims, Catholics, Buddhists or one of the other recognized religions.

It is estimated that at least 20 million of Indonesia’s 260 million people practice local traditional beliefs, but the numbers could be much higher, according to analysts, as some are also followers of Islam, Christianity and other major religions.

Religion is so omnipresent in Indonesia that citizens are required to declare on their national ID cards which of the six approved religions they adhere to, though in some regions they are allowed to leave that section blank. However, doing so can invite discrimination and bureaucratic hassles, so many traditional believers simply state on their ID cards the religion that is dominant in the area where they live. In Java, it is likely to be Muslim, but in parts of the islands of Sumatra or Sulawesi, it could be Catholic or Protestant, while on Bali it would be Hindu.

But such workarounds should be unnecessary, some legal experts say.

“The court decision underlines that freedom of belief is a constitutional right, not a right that is given by the government,” said Bivitri Susanti, head of the Jakarta chapter of the Indonesian Association of Constitutional Law Lecturers.

“Second, it states that the right to belief in aliran kepercayaan, or faiths other than the six government-recognized religions, is inherent with the rights to religion as stated in Article 29 of the Indonesian Constitution,” she added.

But clouding that point of view is the fact that about 90 percent of Indonesians are Muslim, giving Islamic religious leaders outsize political clout. The Indonesia Ulema Council, the country’s top body of clerics, has been adamant, for example, that traditional beliefs should not be seen as on par with Islam.

“The Constitutional Court ruling was not considered carefully and hurt the feelings of the faithful, especially Indonesian Muslims, because the ruling has placed aliran kepercayaan as equals,” said Zainut Tauhid Sa’adi, the council’s vice chairman.

“The decision has legal consequences and an impact on our society,” he said.

Some hard-line Islamic groups want to go even further and change the Constitution to make Islam the official state religion.

However, key leaders within Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Islamic organization, support the court ruling.

Religion has always been a hot-button issue in Indonesia, which despite its Muslim majority has small but influential Christian, Hindu and Buddhist minorities. There have been hundreds of religiously motivated attacks on religious minorities in recent years, some resulting in death, as well as the forced closures of houses of worship and the passage of local bylaws viewed as discriminatory against religious minorities.

That tension has also reached the political realm: In May last year, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the Christian governor of Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, was sentenced to two years in prison for blasphemy against Islam in a highly controversial case that his supporters say was concocted by radical Islamic groups bent on destroying his career.

As such, Indonesia’s Ministry of Home Affairs appears to be erring on the side of caution with the Constitutional Court’s November ruling.

Arief M. Edie, a ministry spokesman, said that the government respects and is implementing the ruling — but only by redesigning the national ID to accommodate the aliran kepercayaan as a choice in the section on religious status. It will not be recognized as the state’s seventh official religion.

“It’s acknowledged only as a culture, not a religion,” Mr. Arief said.

That narrow interpretation is not going over well with aliran kepercayaan followers, who say that local governments in Indonesia’s far-flung regions will continue to discriminate in the delivery of public services.

“The problem with any controversial ruling or policy lies in implementation down to the lowest level of government,” said Johannes Nugroho, an Indonesian political analyst and writer.

Mr. Nugroho, a former follower of both Christianity and kejawen, a traditional belief system, said he tried in vain to have Christianity removed from the religion section on his national identity card, preferring to have it left blank or, in an attempt to make a statement, changed to Hindu.

He said a clerk at his local government office flatly refused, then slyly suggested that if Mr. Nugroho would recite an Islamic creed to convert to Islam, he would put down Muslim on his identity card. Today it still identifies him as a Christian.

Still, traditional belief organizations say they are emboldened by the Constitutional Court ruling and see an opening to push for official acceptance.

“We’ll keep fighting for equality; we have equality, legally speaking, but in reality we don’t,” said Endang Retno Lastani, an elder with one Java-based group, whose national identity card is blank in the religious affiliation section.

“Our belief is the unity of God and people, just like other religions,” he said. “So what’s wrong with that?”

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