HRRC’s Freedom of Religion Roadshow Concludes in Manila

Manila, 29 June 2015—The Human Rights Resource Centre, together with the Institute of Human Rights of the University of the Philippines Law Center, held a forum discussing the findings of the HRRC’s latest study, “Keeping the Faith: A Study of Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion in the ASEAN.” The discussions focused on the application of the doctrine of separation of church and state in the Philippines as well as religious freedom in the context of societies in conflict or transition. The event began with remarks from Professor Concepcion Jardeleza, Associate Dean of the UP College of Law, and Professor Carolina Hernandez, HRRC Governing Board Member and Founding President of the Institute for Strategic and Development Studies.

International Criminal Court Judge Raul Pangalangan, who authored the Philippine country report, noted that the Philippine Constitutions have historically provided for formal separation of church and state. He noted however that, in practice, there is no real separation. He recalled that religious leaders played a huge role in the Anti-Marcos movement and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference was active in the anti-Reproductive Health Bill movement. Catholic doctrine is also reflected in secular law, as can be observed in the absence of a divorce law. “The church has gone beyond the temple of worship and into the community to minister to the day-to-day needs,” Pangalangan said. There is thus an overlap in the spheres of the church and state.

With regard to the quest for self-determination by Muslim groups in southern Mindanao and the draft Bangsamoro Basic Law, Professor Pangalangan noted that “Religion is at best a proxy criterion that is meant to identify other elements.” This conclusion, according to him, finds support in the content of the 2012 Framework Agreement. The annexes of the Agreement have little to do with religion. They are instead more about political transitions, power and wealth sharing, and control over waters.

Ms. Aviva Nababan, assistant researcher of the Indonesia country report, thereafter shared the experience of Indonesia with regard to freedom of religion, with the developments after the 1998 Reform in mind. “In Indonesia, freedom of religion is seen as an issue to be tackled not from the ‘freedom perspective’ but from the ‘public order perspective.’” She cited the Law on Prevention of Religious Blasphemy, arguing that what is considered as “blasphemous” is very arbitrary or vague. This has led to the proliferation of defamation complaints, with many people being convicted based on defamation of religion.

She also highlighted problems brought about by decentralization. “There are a lot of regional regulations violating freedom of religion, or motivated by certain religious orthodoxies, issued on the basis of public order. All of these regulations are basically unconstitutional, but the processes to review them are proving ineffective.” Ms. Nababan also touched upon the Special Autonomy in Aceh, a status that provides a region more rights compared to others. The Special Autonomy in Aceh granted the region the right to issue regional regulations based on Syariah Islam, although they should not contradict national laws. The regulations, Qanuns, are at times restrictive and discriminative against women. One of the most worrying is Qanun Jinayat, passed in September 2014, which essentially provides for a different criminal law system from that of the national system and introduces corporal punishment for crimes. The Qanun has been described as problematic for non-Muslims and especially discriminatory and disadvantageous for women.

Atty. Ishak Mastura of the Transitional Justice and Reconciliation Commission, Atty. Benedicto Bacani, Executive Director of the Institute for Autonomy and Governance, and Professor Grace Gorospe-Jamon of the UP Department of Political Science gave their comments on the study and the issues presented.

Atty. Mastura, while agreeing with Prof. Pangalangan that religion is not the root of conflict in Mindanao, said that religion has been a source of division amongst peoples. He said that, in the construction of the Philippine state, there were different indigenous groups with their own identities who did not identify themselves as Filipino people. The Filipinization process, he argued, was done by Christians and the Muslim people were left out of it. Elaborating on religion as source of division, Mr. Mastura said, “On a personal level, Muslims are no different from their Christian brothers and sisters, or fellow Filipinos. It is only when they deal on a political level with others that they feel victimized and disadvantaged.”

Speaking on separation of church and state, Atty. Bacani opined that the influence of the church on its members is diminishing, as can be seen with the enactment of the Reproductive Health Law in 2012 despite strong church opposition. “In the case of Mindanao, it is the reverse,” Mr. Bacani said. “You have a situation where there is a national policy of separation and this evolving policy allowing religious values in the whole public sphere.”

With regard to the conflict in Mindanao, Bacani insisted that, “It is evident that a great part of it involves religion. So unless we really discuss the role of religion in conflict, we would not be able to move forward and fully understand what the issues are.” “Is the Bangsamoro an Islamic government or a secular government? This goes into the guarantees to be provided for the minorities in the Bangsamoro—the Christians and non-Muslim indigenous peoples.”

Professor Grace Jamon noted that the church in the Philippines has been both progressive and retrogressive. The church has made relevant contributions in political history and its constituency is also a great consideration in order to achieve the kind of nation and democracy that Filipinos want. Pertaining to societies in conflict or transition, she said, “Transition gives rise to a lot of problems, but everything is, indeed, evolving. There are best practices that we can look at. Governance is a very important factor in solving problems regarding religious persecution and discrimination… We have to have an open mind and know that problem solving is an iteration process wherein you have to change strategies as you go along, as you understand the other better, and as you want the other to understand you better.”

“Keeping the Faith” was produced with the support of the Norwegian Embassy in Jakarta. The HRRC also receives support from the WSD HANDA Center for Human Rights and International Justice, the East West Center, and the University of Indonesia. The roadshow kicked off during the ASEAN People’s Forum in April in Kuala Lumpur. Forums were thereafter held with partner institutions in Singapore (April 30), Bandung and Bangkok (May 11), Jakarta (May 13), Bali (May 15), and Yogyakarta (May 30), before concluding in Manila.