By Katharina R. Lestari
Catholic students have rejected a request by a hardline Muslim cleric for talks aimed at getting them to drop a blasphemy charge filed against him.
Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, leader of the Islamic Defenders Front, requested talks this week with the Indonesian Catholic Students Association with the aim of reaching a compromise over the row. The students refused to meet with the cleric.
The students filed a blasphemy complaint against Shihab on Dec. 26 after he allegedly insulted Christianity by ridiculing the birth of Jesus in a speech delivered a day earlier and which was widely circulated on the internet.
About 150 lawyers and many moderate Muslims back the complaint against Shihab, who is known for making hate speeches against other groups.
The complaint comes amid a high-profile blasphemy trial involving Jakarta’s Christian governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, better known as “Ahok,” who is accused of insulting Islam.
“We do not want to think about mediation right now,” said Angelo Wake Kako, the union’s chairman, on Jan. 19.
“The blasphemy case is being processed according to the law. We have to respect it, and we must continue with that,” he told ucanews.com.
Shihab had also appealed to other individuals and organizations, who filed legal complaints against him, to negotiate.
By refusing the cleric’s request the Catholic students want to send a strong message that hate speeches threaten national unity, Wake Kako said.
“It’s clear the [blasphemy] case needs to be dealt with legally, so as to prevent horizontal conflicts,” he said.
Petrus Salestinus, one of their lawyers, backed the decision to pursue the case.
“Blasphemy involves the public interest, so it cannot be handled through mediation,” Salestinus said.
“If he wants to apologize, go ahead. We can forgive him, but this will not stop the legal process,” he said.
The police are still working on the case and will meet Catholic and Protestant leaders soon to discuss it, Salestinus said.
Communion of Churches in Indonesia spokesperson Reverend Jerry Sumampouw also praised the Catholic students standing firm.
“It’s important to highlight issues that could potentially destroy inter-religious relations,” Sumampouw said.
Shihab’s request for talks came amid growing calls from many Indonesians for the government to disband Shihab’s group, the Islamic Defenders Front, for stirring up religious unrest in many parts of the country.
Thousands of people staged protests in Bandung, West Java and in Mataram, West Nusa Tenggara on Jan. 19 demanding the dissolution of the Islamic Defenders Front and for its leader to be prohibited from preaching in their areas.
“We need to make immediate efforts to save the nation from any attempt to disunite people,” said Chrisman Damanik, chairman of the Indonesia National Students Movement in Jakarta on Jan. 19.