Indonesian human rights activists are protesting an American Jewish organization’s plans to honor Indonesia’s president with an award for religious freedom — a freedom that human rights monitors say has sharply deteriorated under his rule.
The annual award, given by Rabbi Arthur Schneier’s Appeal of Conscience Foundation, has no significant profile in the United States. But in Indonesia, Schneier’s decision to honor President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been the subject of street protests, newspaper articles and angry statements by major national figures.
“He has laid down the legal infrastructure of the discrimination against religious minorities,” said Andreas Harsono, a Jakarta-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, of Yudhoyono.
According to recent HRW reports, persecution against religious minorities, including non-Sunni Muslims and Christians, has burgeoned under the current president’s leadership. A recent U.S. State Department report faulted the Indonesian government for failing to protect religious minorities.
The Appeal of Conscience Foundation, an interfaith group that bills itself as promoting religious freedom, said in a statement that the award to Yudhoyono is “an encouragement to advance human rights, religious freedom and interreligious cooperation.”
A representative for the Indonesian Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
Schneier’s decision to bestow the religious freedom award on the Indonesian president has been the subject of headlines in seven Indonesian newspapers in recent days. Representatives of the Ahmadiyya and Shia communities, minority Muslim groups that have suffered persecution in Indonesia, issued statements condemning the award. Protesters gathered outside the American Embassy in Jakarta on May 6 to oppose the award, and rights groups have scheduled a press conference on May 23 in Jakarta to condemn the award.
“How come they did not ask the Indonesian people’s opinion before they decided to give Yudhoyono the award?” asked the Rev. Franz Magnis-Suseno, a major Indonesian Catholic figure, according to an Indonesian press report.
Schneier, spiritual leader of the Park East Synagogue in Manhattan, a Modern Orthodox congregation, has developed a reputation for high-profile interfaith dialogue. Pope Benedict XVI visited his congregation in 2008, marking the first time a pope visited a synagogue in the United States. Schneier founded the Appeal of Conscience Foundation in 1965 and serves as its president.
Schneier did not respond to a request for comment beyond the one issued by his group.
The foundation is set to give Yudhoyono its World Statesman Award May 30 at a dinner to be held at the Pierre Hotel in New York. Previous recipients include Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Though Indonesia is the largest Muslim-majority country in the world, its citizens are religiously diverse. Most of the country’s Muslims are Sunni, but there are substantial communities of Shia and Ahmadiyya Muslims. The country also has large Christian, Hindu and Buddhist populations, among others.