Suharto repeats his call for greater religious tolerance

PRESIDENT Suharto has issued yet another firm reminder that differences among the various religious groups in Indonesia should not tear the country apart.

“Religious differences should not cause us to disintegrate or to be hostile to each other,” the Antara national news agency yesterday quoted him as saying.

Speaking at a function here to celebrate Prophet Muhammad’s birthday on Wednesday evening, he said that the country’s five main religious groups – Muslims, Christians, Roman Catholics, Buddhists and Hindus – should have little difficulty coexisting because each preached tolerance.

Citing Islam as an example, he said: “In Islam, freedom of religion is highly respected and nobody can be forced to embrace a particular religion.”

He called on the various religious groups and their sects to maintain harmony in the sprawling archipelago where some 90 per cent of its 200 million population are Muslims.

“I have tirelessly reminded the nation, particularly national leaders and religious figures, of the need to maintain harmony,” he said.

Mr Suharto’s comments came against the backdrop of disturbances during the recent general-election campaign which took on a religious and ethnic dimension. There were a number of violent incidents, particularly in Central and East Java, and West Kalimantan.

The President ordered Islamic and other intellectuals to examine the causes of the riots which resulted in at least 400 fatalities.

Mr Suharto has said he believes the riots would not have happened if people had obeyed the teachings of their religions.

Political observers here said his call for greater religious tolerance was a consistent theme of the New Order government, but such warnings have increased over the past year.

One diplomat said: “There is concern that religious issues could be used as a trigger to spark off more violence. There is also added impetus now to make such reminders, especially with the presidential election being held next year.”

Others believe Mr Suharto was merely using this annual religious occasion to reaffirm the government’s broad-minded attitude that no one should be discriminated against because of his religion or ethnicity.

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