Religious figures oppose bid to include sharia in Constitution

In an attempt to prevent national disintegration, religious figures expressed their commitment on Wednesday to oppose the demand to insert a phrase on the implementation of sharia (Islamic Law) into the 1945 Constitution.

Ahmad Syafii Maarif, chairman of the country's second largest Muslim organization, Muhammadyah, along with Hasyim Muzadi of the largest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), Julius Kardinal Darmaatmadja of the Bishops Council of Indonesia (KWI) and Wismohadi of the Indonesian Communion of Churches (PGI) agreed that excluding the phrase from the 1945 Constitution was "the only way to avoid the country from disintegration".

"We are committed to not changing the preamble of our Constitution, because replacing it will only change this country.

"We consider the ongoing constitutional amendment process to be inconsistent with certain elements of the nation that insist on inserting the implementation of sharia into Article 29 of the Constitution. Therefore, we should not make any amendment to the article," Syafii told a media conference, after a two-hour closed-door meeting at the NU secretariat in Central Jakarta.

The meeting, held prior to NU's four-day national congress, was meant to gather input from various social and religious groups in the country over many issues, including the ongoing amendment process of the Constitution.

The NU congress will be held from Thursday through to Sunday. Besides discussing the amendment of Article 29 of the Constitution, the congress is also slated to discuss measures to promote direct presidential elections in the future.

Also present at the meeting was noted Muslim cleric Nurcholish Madjid.

Two major Muslim-based political parties -- the United Development Party (PPP) and the Crescent Star Party (PBB) -- have reportedly pressured the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) to amend Article 29 by inserting the seven-word phrase accommodating the implementation of sharia.

Several Muslim-based groups, including the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), the Association of Indonesian Muslim Workers (PPMI) and the Hizbollah Front have staged several protests outside the Assembly building demanding the implementation of sharia.

Syafii admitted that their commitment to oppose the plan to include the phrase in the Constitution was not popular with Indonesian Muslims.

"I believe that many people within our (NU and Muhammadyah) community will condemn our stance, but I have warned them that we must be committed to promoting unity, which our founding fathers declared when establishing this nation," Syafii said.

"We must also realize that this country's prolonged crisis is due to the lack of our politicians' leadership, as they have forgotten their main task, which is to protect the public instead of pursuing their own interests," he added.

Indonesia has been hit by sectarian conflicts in several regions in past years, including bloody clashes in Ambon, Maluku and Poso in Central Sulawesi, which have claimed thousands of lives.

Meanwhile, Julius said promoting personal interests above national interests would only pave the way for national disintegration.

"Once we fail to respect other people's rights, our country will break up," Julius said.

Julius cited the KWI Meeting in 2000, which concluded there should be no limitations among religious worshipers.

Wismohadi shared Julius' statement, saying that differences among people should not be a reason to eliminate the presence of minority groups.

* Published by The Jakarta Post on July 25, 2002