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Government and private watchdog agencies say that religious persecution has worsened under the current president. “Since Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono took office in December 2004, there has been an increase in violence targeting Ahmadiyya, Christians, Shia and other religious minorities,” HRW reported in 2013.
The Ahmadiyya Muslims, in particular, have suffered greater religious persecution under Yudhoyono’s rule, human rights monitors say. A heterodox sect that broke off from mainstream Islam in the 19th century, the Ahmadiyya have been a long-standing target in Indonesia. But in 2008, Yudhoyono’s government passed a decree making it illegal for the group to spread its beliefs. Suryadharma Ali, Yudhoyono’s minister of religious affairs, has been one of the most prominent leaders of the anti-Ahmadiyya movement.
The U.S. State Department has criticized the Indonesian government for its sometimes anemic response to interreligious violence. When 500 Sunni extremists attacked a Shia neighborhood on an island near Java in August 2012, displacing hundreds of Shia, police sent only five officers, according to the State Department’s annual religious freedom report. A large force of 700 officers was dispatched only after the violence was long over.
Kontras, an Indonesian human rights organization, issued a lengthy letter in early May, asking the Appeal of Conscience Foundation to drop the award. The Indonesian group wrote that it was “confused and disappointed” that the foundation had chosen to honor Yudhoyono, who, it said, has “failed to demonstrate the political will to put a stop to these repeated instances of violence towards religious minorities.”
It’s not clear what unstated motives, if any, Schneier’s foundation might have for giving the award to Yudhoyono in the face of his record on religious rights. Indonesia has no official diplomatic relations with Israel, though ties between the two countries have warmed recently. In June 2012, Indonesia agreed to open a consulate in Ramallah that would handle diplomatic relationships with Israel. In February 2012, a delegation of Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders traveled together to Indonesia and Israel in a peace-building effort.
If Schneier hopes to change Yudhoyono’s behavior toward ethnic minorities in his own country, however, the award may come too late. Yudhoyono is barred by term limits from running in Indonesia’s 2014 elections. “If they wanted him to do more, it’s not the time to do it,” said Jeremy Menchik, a professor of international relations at Boston University. “It’s going to help whitewash his legacy.”
The dispute over the award to the Indonesian president bears some similarities to a controversy involving Arthur Schneier’s son, Rabbi Marc Schneier, who is also an interfaith activist. Marc Schneier drew criticism in January 2012 for traveling to Bahrain to meet its monarch, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, and lauding his rule while there and back in the United States as “a role model in the Arab world for coexistence and tolerance of different faith communities.”
Marc Schneier’s praise came just months after the Bahrain government brutally repressed peaceful protests by the Shia majority against the island nation’s Sunni rulers. The Bahrain government’s own Independent Commission of Inquiry found that government forces had abused and tortured hundreds of protesters, leading to the death of at least 35 of them.