Buddhist Statue Draws Islamists’ Ire

by Arientha Primanita, Bilhuda Haryanto & Aidi Yursal, The Jakarta Post, October 22, 2010

Jakarta, Indonesia -- Buddhists are the latest minority religious group to feel the heat, being at the center of a festering row over a large Buddha statue on the roof of a temple in the North Sumatran city of Tanjung Balai.

City council chief Surya Dharma said on Friday the governor and the foundation in charge of the temple had agreed to remove the statue after complaints from an Islamic group.

“The letter of agreement was signed in August and we agreed to relocate the statue to a more respectful location inside the temple,” Surya said.

But the offending 6-meter statue continues to sit on top of the three-storey temple in the city center.

“The foundation promised us that the relocation would be conducted by a construction team from Bandung,” Surya said.

The relocation was endorsed by the Religious Affairs Ministry’s department dealing with Buddhist affairs.

The Forum for United Muslims, a local coalition of Muslim groups, has been agitating for the statue to be removed, holding repeated protests in May and June.

Baharuddin Berutu, of North Sumatra’s Islamic Community Council, said it was frivolous to exaggerate the issue. “The mayor decided on the best solution and it was agreed to by the temple,” he said.

“By not exaggerating the issue, we have been able to maintain harmony between religious communities.”

Baharuddin said he felt compelled to speak out because many sides were beginning to demand a review of the agreement.

Lieus Sungkharisma, the chairman of the board of supervisors at Gemabudhi, or Indonesian Buddhist Youths, said he regretted the deal, saying it was a threat to religious freedom.

Lieus said the temple had received a permit from the municipality to put up the statue and “the mayor should have given his protection to the Buddhist and other religious communities should have shown respect.”

He said the local administration should not only heed the majority but consider the implications as the move could tarnish Indonesia’s image.

Ismail Hasani, a researcher at the Setara Institute for Peace and Democracy, said intolerance appeared to be spreading like a virus across the country.

“Buddhism is one of the religions acknowledged in Indonesia, so it should receive equal respect,” he said.

Ismail said the Tanjung Balai case reflected the state’s practice of bowing to the masses to the disadvantage of minorities.

This not only led to discrimination of minorities, “but the groups that exert the pressure will feel powerful,” he said.