JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) -- Indonesia's government, security forces and courts must do more to protect religious minorities from growing episodes of intolerance and violence, an international rights group said in a report Thursday.
Human Rights Watch cited a steady increase in brutal attacks over the past few years due to the government's failure to confront thuggish harassment against Christians, Shia Muslims and the Ahmadiyah, an Islamic sect. It also noted that discriminatory regulations have not only affected those minorities, but also Sunni Muslim communities in some Christian-dominated areas of eastern Indonesia.
Indonesia, a secular country, is the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation. The majority of its 210 million Muslims are Sunni and most practice a moderate form of faith.
The New York-based organization called on President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to adopt a "zero tolerance" policy for discrimination and violence against religious minorities.
The government responded to the report by saying religious harmony remains strong in Indonesia, and it was unfair to generalize all attacks on minorities as being linked to intolerance.
The report alleged building permits for houses of worship have been denied, police have failed to stop violent attacks, prosecutors have sought weak punishment and in two cases, local authorities refused to honor Supreme Court decisions allowing religious minorities to build places of worship.
The 107-page report was based on research between August 2011 and December 2012, interviewing 115 people, including 71 victims in 10 of Indonesia's 34 provinces.
"The Indonesian government's failure to take decisive action to protect religious minorities from threats and violence is undermining its claims to being a rights-respecting democracy," said Brad Adams, the group's Asia director.
The watchdog organization also cited reports from the Jakarta-based nonprofit Setara Institute, which recorded 264 attacks last year, up from 244 cases the previous year and 216 in 2010.
However, Bahrul Hayat, Secretary General of Indonesia's Religious Affairs Ministry, said a government survey completed at the end of last year indicated that religious harmony in Indonesia is still very strong.
"We noted that a few violations happened, but please don't generalize that intolerance has increased in Indonesia," he said, adding that in some cases religion is blamed as the cause of conflicts when instead some disputes are actually motivated by social, political, economic or even cultural or family issues.
He said most religious issues involve the closing or building of places of worship, but it that is not an issue unique to minority religions.
"Not only churches are having problems in gaining construction approval, but also mosques in some areas," he said. "If they don't meet the requirements of a permit to build the house of worship, the government's permit will not granted. ... This should be understood by people of all faiths."
In the Human Rights Watch report, the hardline Islamic People's Forum and the Islamic Defenders Front were singled out as seeking to justify violence by labeling Ahmadiyahs and Shiites as "blasphemers" and most non-Muslims as "infidels."
The report insisted on the need to enforce national laws and to map out a comprehensive strategy to combat rising religious intolerance.
It also criticized the government for not disciplining cabinet members, including Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali, who encouraged abuses with discriminatory statements such as calling for the Ahmadiyah to be banned in 2011 and proposing one year later that Shia Muslims convert to Sunni Islam.
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