Recent days have seen an outpouring of support for Meiliana, a Chinese-Indonesian woman of the Buddhist faith who was sentenced to 1.5 years in prison for complaining about the volume of the adzan (Islamic call to prayer) from a speaker at a mosque near her house in Tanjungbalai, North Sumatra.
Religious Affairs Minister Lukman H. Saifuddin, who is currently in Saudi Arabia, recently joined the chorus of support, even expressing his readiness to testify in Meiliana’s favor in a higher court.
He expressed his willingness on his personal Twitter account in response to a query from Saiful Mujani, the director of the Saiful Mujani Research Center, who tweeted, “So it’s not seen as intervention, it’s better for the religious affairs minister to appeal as a related party or an expert witness. Please [do so], Sir!”
Lukman tweeted again on Thursday, saying that “In my opinion, Article 156a of Law No. 1/1965 [on blasphemy] regarding Meiliana’s case cannot be used as an independent variable as it is dependent upon context.”
Lukman also pointed to Instruction No. 101, released by the Religious Affairs Ministry’s Public Guidance Directorate General in 1978 that regulates the use of speakers in houses of worship. The instruction, among other things, stipulates that amplified Quran recitations can be broadcast, at the earliest, 15 minutes prior to the call to prayer.
Vice President Jusuf Kalla, who also serves as the chairman of the Indonesia Mosques Council (DMI), suggested that legal sentencing over a complaint was unnecessary.
“Of course residents who ask [mosques to lower the volume of speakers] should not be charged […] It’s an acceptable request to make, even the DMI has asked mosques to set their speakers at a tolerable volume and not to use the speakers for too long,” Kalla told reporters at his office recently.
Kalla also made a similar request back in 2015, criticizing the overuse of mosque loudspeakers especially during Ramadhan.
Members of the public have also voiced their concern by signing a petition on change.org calling on President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to free Meiliana. Over 100,000 people had signed the petition as of Friday evening.
However, in a statement released by the Presidential Office, Jokowi said he would not “intervene in the legal process”, but suggested that the ruling could still be challenged in a higher court.
Meanwhile, the Anti-Discrimination Movement (Gandi) said on Thursday that Meiliana’s request was similar to Kalla’s in 2015. Therefore, Gandi secretary Ahmad Ari Mahsyuri requested the North Sumatra chapter of the Indonesia Ulema Council (MUI) to review their fatwa that declared Meiliana’s complaint to be “demeaning and insulting toward Islam” because the adzan was part of Islamic law.
Based on the fatwa, the police charged Meiliana with blasphemy. Meiliana made the comment to a neighbor on July 22, 2016, however she reportedly disappeared until she was finally arrested on May 30 this year.
Despite criticism, the MUI doubled down on the fatwa, with MUI deputy secretary-general Tengku Zulkarnain arguing that “people should respect the rule of law”.
Meiliana’s blasphemy trial started on June 26 this year and continued on Aug. 13 when the prosecutors demanded she be found guilty under Articles 156 and 156a of the Criminal Code, and be sentenced to 1.5 years in prison.
Meiliana’s private comment became a source of rumors in the days following its utterance, with people claiming a woman of Chinese descent wanted to “ban adzan”.
The rumors quickly snowballed, triggering a riot that saw a mob destroy and set fire to several Buddhist temples in the port city.
The police arrested 19 people for their roles in the riot. All were given one to four month jail sentences.